7 January 2002

Suicide flight by boy puts America back on red alert

By Philip Delves Broughton in New York and Ian Ball in Miami

America’s fears of another airborne terrorist attack were revived yesterday when a 15-year-old boy killed himself by flying a stolen light aircraft into a skyscraper in Florida.

A suicide note found in Charles Bishop's pocket, among the wreckage of the crashed Cessna plane, "expressed sympathy towards Osama bin Laden and the events of September 11", the Tampa police chief, Bennie Holder, said.

Charles Bishop, 15, died after flying the Cessna into the Tampa skyscraper

But he added that the note "clearly stated he had acted alone without any help from anyone else. He was a troubled young man."

Bishop ignored frantic waving by the crew of a Coast Guard helicopter that pursued him along with two fighter jets as he flew into restricted airspace over MacDill air base, the headquarters of America's military operations in Afghanistan.

He then flew the aircraft towards the 42-storey Bank of America building in Tampa's financial district, crashing it into the 28th floor. He was the only fatality.

The failure to force down the light aircraft before it struck the skyscraper came as a terrifying warning to the authorities in Washington. It was not far from Tampa that several of the ringleaders of the September 11 attacks took flying lessons.

As the incident unfolded, President Bush and Tom Ridge, the homeland security director, were kept fully briefed.

Bishop's grandmother dropped him off at his flying school near Tampa by his grandmother on Saturday afternoon. Friends told local television stations that he had been depressed.

Officials at the National Aviation Flight Academy at the St Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, said Bishop enrolled last March and logged about six hours of flight time. He spent much of his spare time at the airport, washing aircraft and doing odd chores to earn money for his flying lessons.

Although he was below the age limit of 16 for solo flights, his instructor gave him the keys to the Cessna on Saturday and suggested that he should conduct the pre-flight check.

Instead, Bishop taxied towards the runway and took off on his 20-mile flight across the bay separating St Petersburg from Tampa. He made no attempt to speak to air traffic controllers or to the pilot of the Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter that chased him almost from the moment he took off.

At Homestead air base near Miami, about 12 minutes flying time from Tampa, two F-15 fighters were scrambled to intercept the Cessna as it approached central Tampa.

These are among the more than 100 fighters on alert at air bases throughout the country since September 11 with orders to use missiles against any aircraft being flown into a building. But by the time they caught up with the aircraft, it had crashed.

Mr Ridge was in constant touch with the Pentagon as the incident unfolded and Mr Bush was briefed on this and three other unrelated light aircraft mishaps that occurred at roughly the same time in California, Colorado and Puerto Rico.

The boy died instantly when the Cessna 172R, which weighs a ton, rammed into the glass-and-steel skyscraper just after 5pm. Its load of 56 gallons of fuel did not ignite, so there was no fire. The wings, each about 15ft long, snapped off and fell to the street.

Only about 20 people were in the building, preparing for a reception in the Tampa Club on the 42nd floor. They fled down a stairwell.