While it’s likely not possible to prevent a determined maniac, would-be terrorists, or mentally unstable person from using an aircraft as an implement of death, surely there are steps that can be taken to make such tragedies less easy and thus less likely. This is the lesson to be learned from the “suicide by Cessna” of Charles Bishop, a disturbed 15-year-old who crashed his small private plane into a Tampa, Fla., skyscraper over the weekend. While no one was paying attention, the student pilot who was supposed to be “checking the equipment” of the single-engine Cessna 172 while awaiting the arrival of an adult instructor pilot simply hopped in, took off and flew directly into the 28th story of the 42-story Bank of America building, killing himself and damaging the structure, but luckily not harming anyone else. The teen left a suicide note expressing support for Osama bin Laden and the attacks of September 11.
The most alarming thing about Bishop’s flight is the ease with which he was able to carry it off. He was able to “hang around” an airplane he had no authorization to fly and then successfully fly to his target before fighter jets or anything else could be deployed to intercept him. A Coast Guard helicopter tailed the small Cessna and tried to signal the plane to land, but had no means of physically stopping it. A pair of jet fighters scrambled to intercept, but didn’t make it on time. It seems clear that our air grid remains porous. If a 15-year-old student pilot could succeed, what about more determined and capable adults?
Meanwhile, Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder made the idiotic statement after the crash that Bishop didn’t have “any intention of harming anyone else.” In point of fact, the only thing that prevented harm to anyone else in this case is that Bishop was flying a small, relatively light trainer-type airplane and pure blind luck. Had he been flying a larger aircraft, or had there been people in the office suites on the 28th floor, it’s a certainty many people would have been “harmed.”
But the point here is that once again the people in charge were apparently asleep at the switch. Even if it is “routine” to allow flight students access to airplanes post-September 11, that practice should and must end. The terrorists who crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were also “student pilots” who were allowed to behave in ways that any thinking person would be troubled by and yet for the most part, no one raised a red flag. Obviously, the nation’s flight schools have some more hard thinking to do.