Background: Civil Aviation
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RAY SUAREZ: On Saturday night, a 15-year-old Tampa boy flew a small plane into a downtown office building. The young pilot, Charles Bishop, died in the crash. No one in the building was injured. It would have been a strange occurrence any time, but after September 11, it raises even more interesting issues. Terence Smith looks at the story.
TERENCE SMITH: And we begin with what exactly happened and what has been learned since. For that, we’re joined by Vickie Chachere, the Tampa correspondent for the Associated Press. Vicki, welcome. Tell us… This happened all… This was Saturday night. Tell us what happened.
VICKIE CHACHERE, Associated Press: (Network Difficulty) (No audio)… He was a flight student. Had arrived at the St. Pete Clearwater Airport for his flight lesson and basically according to the flight school he took a plane and stole it and took off, flew across Tampa Bay, over MacDill air space which is restricted air space and crashed it into the Bank of America buildings which is one of the tallest buildings in downtown Tampa.
TERENCE SMITH: When he went through that restricted air space, did that set off alarms?
VICKIE CHACHERE: From what we’re told the alarms were set off from the minute this boy had taken the plane. The people at the flight school saw him rolling towards the runway and there is basically two points in which he crossed, which set off the alarms, one in which he left the ramp from the flight school towards the runway and then when he was on the runway. And immediately the tower at the airport set in motion a series of notifications that let pretty much everyone in the area who needed to know be that air traffic control and law enforcement and the military that this boy had taken the plane and was heading they did not know where at the time but was out there flying without radar, without his radios on and was something to be looked out for.
TERENCE SMITH: This is what activated the Coast Guard helicopter that pursued him?
VICKIE CHACHERE: The Coast Guard was patrolling in the area. We understand that they were patrolling around the port of Tampa, which has been one of the more serious areas for protection since the September 11 attacks. And so they were already in the air doing their regular duty when this boy took the plane.
TERENCE SMITH: And I understand that they got up very close to him, is that right?
VICKIE CHACHERE: That is what we are hearing from witnesses’ accounts, is that the helicopter was very close. So we’re not sure exactly how many feet apart, but the Coast Guard was trying to give the boy hand signals getting him to land the plane so they were fairly near him.
TERENCE SMITH: So he simply ignored them as far as you know?
VICKIE CHACHERE: That is what we are told, that he ignored them, and the investigation is still sort of continuing but from what we understand he didn’t have his radio on so there was no way to contact him by radio to try to get him to the land plane.
TERENCE SMITH: And then when he went into this restricted zone, did they scramble aircraft or do anything to defend the air force base?
VICKIE CHACHERE: What happened was Homestead Air Force Base in South Florida, there were two fighter jets scrambled from Homestead. The Air Force told us yesterday that the whole process from the time the boy stole the plane till the time the crash took place was about nine to twelve minutes. And by the time that those aircraft were scrambled, the crash into the building had already occurred. MacDill Air Force Base though did not consider him to be a threat. They had been told very quickly that it was a 15-year-old boy flying a very small plane, and the colonel who spoke with us yesterday said that this boy didn’t make any threatening maneuvers when he was in the air space, which was only for about a minute that he was in MacDill air space. And they just didn’t consider him a threat so they didn’t do anything on the ground to protect the base even though they do have the capability to do that.
TERENCE SMITH: But I understand that there was an incident where he flew rather close to a Southwest Airlines Flight that was taking off from Tampa; is that right?
VICKIE CHACHERE: There have been reports that as he left St. Pete Clearwater International Airport and headed toward downtown Tampa that there was a Southwest Airliner in the area and had to take some action. It’s not exactly clear what that action was, but there was one in the area.
TERENCE SMITH: And, Vickie, was there any evidence, was this a specific target, or just a tall office building?
VICKIE CHACHERE: There was nothing to indicate that he had targeted this particular office building. There was nothing in the note that was found in his pocket when they were able to get to the wreckage that indicated he was aiming toward that building. And so they’re not really sure why the Bank of America Building.
TERENCE SMITH: What can you tell us about that note?
VICKIE CHACHERE: What we’ve been told is that it’s a handwritten note, three or four paragraphs long, just written on plain, white copy paper, was found in his pocket, and the police have not released the note or given us the full text of the note. But what they’ve said is the note expressed sympathy for Osama bin Laden and support for the September 11 attacks.
TERENCE SMITH: But is there any serious link beyond that, between him and terrorism?
VICKIE CHACHERE: No, they really don’t believe this boy had any connections to terrorism. From talking to the police, they say that, you know, they describe him as a loner, you know, without friends and without a lot of contacts and also sort of at the age of 15 his movements about there would not have been an opportunity for him to be meeting with terrorists who happened to be in the United States or have any kind of contact with terrorists. The one thing law enforcement is still investigating though; they have seized two computers from, one from the boy’s mother’s house and one from his grandmother’s house. And they are looking at e-mail and looking at Web sites that he may have visited.
TERENCE SMITH: At this point it seems to be a suicide not terrorism.
VICKIE CHACHERE: They are almost certain it is a suicide. They are calling this a suicide note. It’s being referred to as, he’s being called a suicide pilot. Everything that we have heard from law enforcement indicates that this boy committed suicide.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Vickie, thank you very much for that update.
VICKIE CHACHERE: Thank you.