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The Bradenton Herald January 8, 2002

FIGHTER JETS CALLED TOO LATE

By Bre Jones

Fighter jets screamed across Florida only after Charles J. Bishop buzzed MacDill's Central Command and slammed a stolen Cessna into a Tampa skyscraper, officials said Monday. By the time jets circled the area -- 13 minutes after the crash -- the plane's tail dangled from the Bank of America building. Authorities say the delay, an eerie echo of Sept. 11 at the Pentagon near Washington -- resulted from the small, white plane harboring "no threat." And Butch Wilson, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, says there wasn't enough time to intercept the suicidal teen.

Bishop's body was removed from the wreckage Sunday and taken to the Hillsborough County medical examiner's office. A handwritten, two-page suicide note expressing support for Osama bin Laden was found in the wreckage, police said. Workers for the NTSB are continuing their investigation, which could last as long as six months. They are examining Bishop's two computers for clues to what drove him, and reviewing agency response procedures, officials said.

Bishop, described as a detached, intelligent teen, has revived lingering questions about whether the military can shield both commercial and private aviation from terrorism.

"We weren't even pressed until after the plane crashed," said Maj. Christy Nolta, a spokeswoman for the Air Force. "We did not know about it because there was no indication that it was a threat. The F-15s were airborne within six minutes of the crash.

After Bishop's unauthorized liftoff before a flight lesson Saturday, the teen soared 1,000 feet over MacDill Air Force Base, Central Command for the war in Afghanistan, dipped and then flew away during his flight, which lasted nine to 12 minutes. He curved the plane into the skyscraper when he crashed.

Lt. Col. Rich McClain said Monday that the one minute Bishop flew in MacDill's air space did not pose a threat to the military base.

"We were informed the pilot was a 15-year-old in a small plane. The plane made no threatening moves and took no aggressive action," said McClain, who in his two years at the base has never had another unauthorized plane enter the base's airspace. "The plane was three miles from the base when we were informed. It entered from the west, from St. Petersburg, and flew to the northeast."

McClain said he could not comment on what constitutes a "threatening move," but he said air defenses are in place at the base. Tech Sgt. Chris Miller, a MacDill spokesman, said defenses were alerted Saturday, but they took no action. "There are things in place that if we thought there was a threat, we could have done something," Miller said.

A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the defenses as heavy machine guns guarded around the clock. The water on three sides of the base is patrolled by Coast Guard vessels.

Those defenses are probably sufficient to shoot down a small plane, said John Pike, a military expert with GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. But they would have little effect on a hijacked airliner plummeting from the sky. The base does not have intercepting fighter jets, Wilson said.

"I wish it was as simple as saying we could put a couple of fighter jets at MacDill," said Army Maj. Barry Venable, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command. "But they cost money, and oh, by the way, there's a war going on in Afghanistan."

The nearest military fighters on alert, two Air National Guard F-15s with the 125th Fighter Wing from Homestead Air Reserve Base near Miami, scrambled to intercept the teenager and circled the scene for 30 minutes when they arrived, Nolta said.

McClain said "higher authorities" would determine if the military planned to deploy intercepters in the future at MacDill. Instead of intercepters, the base houses U.S. Central Command, which has operational authority over the war in Afghanistan. MacDill's airfield also services a wing of midair refueling tankers.

Since Sept. 11, NORAD has kept dozens more fighters on alert around the country, running constant patrols over Washington and New York, and random patrols over other cities, Nolta said. NORAD officials said about 30 air bases around the country have fighters armed and fueled, ready to scramble in 10 minutes.

Homestead was one of the few air bases that had fighters ready to scramble even before Sept. 11. But the jets patrolled with an eye toward Cuba and drug smuggling flights off Florida's coast.

"(NORAD) provides air defense for the U.S. and Canada," Venable said. "That is a broad area. Since Sept. 11, we encountered a realization, and adapted procedures. We have a liaison with FAA. We share data. We know where every commercial airliner is in every part of the country. We don't know about the small planes that fly with visual flight because we don't track them. This airplane looked like any other airplane taking off."

An unarmed Coast Guard helicopter caught up to Bishop over Tampa after he had traveled about 20 miles from his takeoff point, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. With hand gestures, the crew signaled for Bishop to land, but Bishop ignored them.

"Response was occurring when the aircraft hit the building," Wilson said. "Air traffic control was in touch with the communications center, who is in touch with Washington, who was in touch with NORAD. Things were moving . . . but by the time you get everybody on line and get everybody up to date and got the aircraft in the air . . . it was too late. It is not enough time."

Venable said the Tampa episode should be viewed in perspective.

"We have thousands of small planes in the air, with thousands, even millions of people who know how to fly," Venable said. "There is potential, but we have to keep this (incident) in perspective and look at the big, broad picture of air defense. We're doing anything short of putting a fighter jet on the rooftop of every building in the United States. There are many potential targets."

The Pentagon is considered more of a potential terrorist target than MacDill. The Pentagon's internal security is at "Threat Condition Charlie," the second-highest state of alert. MacDill is at "Bravo," one step lower.


Copyright 2002 The Bradenton Herald