Small plane crashes into building in Tampa

Sunday, January 6, 2002

TAMPA, Fla. -- A 15-year-old student pilot took off in a small plane without permission Saturday and crashed into a skyscraper after ignoring a Coast Guard helicopter's signals to land, authorities said.

The crash occurred after Charles J. Bishop's grandmother brought him to the National Aviation Academy flight school for a 5 p.m. flying lesson, said Marianne Pasha, a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.

She said an instructor told Bishop to check the plane's equipment before the lesson.

"The next thing the instructor knew he was gone," Pasha said.

Though terrorism was quickly discounted, the televised image of a plane blasting a hole in the side of a skyscraper was a chilling reminder of the World Trade Center attacks. The plane's tail dangled near the 28th floor of the 42-story Bank of America building.

One person was killed, but officials would not immediately confirm it was Bishop. It was unknown whether anyone in the building was injured.

Bishop, of nearby of Palm Harbor, had been taking lessons for two years, Pasha said.

Michael Cronin, an attorney for National Aviation Academy, said Bishop had been taking lessons since March 2001 and had logged about six hours of flight time.

He said the boy often bartered to clean planes in exchange for flight time and was very familiar with operations at the school. Cronin said students do preflight equipment checks on their own, then have their accuracy verified by an instructor.

"The bottom line is he essentially stole the aircraft," Cronin said. "We aren't going to speculate what his mental state or motivations were."

Sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita said the FBI was interviewing Bishop's family and that there was no record of the ninth grader running into problems with the law in the past.

Air traffic controllers at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport notified the Coast Guard that the four-seat 2000 Cessna 172R had taken off without clearance, said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Charlotte Pittman.

A Coast Guard HH60 Jayhawk helicopter on routine patrol intercepted the plane and attempted to give the pilot visual signals to land at a small airport, but the pilot did not respond, Pittman said.

She said the plane was only a few yards from the helicopter when it was signaled to land.

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