Military didn't see teen as threat, officials say
Southwest jet flying 1,000 feet above teen's plane
TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- Air Force officials tracking the movements of a teen pilot minutes before he crashed a Cessna plane into an office tower here Saturday did not perceive him as a threat, even as he came within 100 feet of a major U.S. air base, a Pentagon official said Monday.
Tampa authorities said they believe Charles J. Bishop, 15, committed suicide. No one else was injured.
Speaking at the Pentagon's daily briefing Monday, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said officials had no way of knowing Bishop's intent.
"I mean here was a 15-year-old flight student who did something untoward and unknown to anybody else," Stufflebeem said.
"When he decided to, for his unfortunate personal reasons, to start [the plane] up and then take off, there was no way of knowing that he wouldn't just try to turn around and land again to prove his prowess as a flight student."
At one point during his flight around the Tampa Bay area, Bishop's single-engine aircraft came within 100 feet of a runway at MacDill Air Force Base, the headquarters of U.S. Central Command.
Known as CentCom, it directs the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan as well as other military efforts.
"At that time, we did not feel he was a threat," said Air Force Lt. Col. Rich McClain. "MacDill did nothing, so to speak, to stop that airplane except try to contact him."
Commercial airliner takes action
Southwest Airlines confirmed Monday that Flight 2229 was taking off from Tampa International Airport headed to New Orleans shortly after 5 p.m. when the control tower warned the pilot that Bishop's Cessna was flying just 1,000 feet above it.
The Boeing 737, ascending at 2,700 feet and carrying 124 passengers and five crew members, then "shallowed out" and stopped its climb, said Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King.
The small private plane then passed safely over the jet, she said.
Southwest insists the incident does not qualify as a near collision.
"At no time was safety compromised," King said. "The tower notified our pilot and it was just an extra safety precaution for them to be aware of the aircraft and shallow out."
Note found at crash scene
Bishop carried a handwritten note, found by investigators at the crash scene, "expressing his sympathy for Osama bin Laden and the events which occurred September 11, 2001," according to Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder.
Holder said the letter "had some other things in there that we prefer not to talk about [since] the investigation is still ongoing, but everything in the note mentioned things that occurred on September 11 and his support of bin Laden and al Qaeda."
The student's act appeared to be a small-scale re-enactment of the attacks in which terrorists linked to bin Laden hijacked two commercial jets and crashed them into New York's World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people.
Holder said that the Florida incident was isolated and investigators did not believe the teen-ager was connected to any terror organizations.
He did say they were looking into reports Bishop said he was of Arab descent on his father's side as a possible explanation for his motives.
The content of Bishop's note, as well as his apparent suicide mission, came as a surprise to many who knew him as a quiet high school freshman.
After the September 11 incident, Bishop "expressed words of being a superpatriot," said Bob Cooper, president of National Aviation Flight School, where the student took flight lessons.
Helicopter on student's trail
Bishop arrived about 15 minutes early Saturday for his 5 p.m. lesson at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, Cooper said. He was handed the keys and a dispatch book with preflight instructions and was told to wait for his instructor, who was with another student.
"He was not authorized at all to do the preflight of the airplane," Cooper said.
The teen-ager had flown about six hours over a 10-month period with the flight school, Cooper said. Reports said the teen had two years of flight training, possibly attending another flight school.
Without authorization, Bishop took off from the airport at 4:54 p.m. After Bishop violated MacDill's airspace, authorities at the base alerted the U.S. Coast Guard, which diverted a nearby helicopter on routine patrol.
MacDill does not have the capability of thwarting an attack. Homestead Air Force Base in Miami has that responsibility and sent two F-15 fighter jets, but they arrived too late to intervene.
The Coast Guard chopper caught up with the Cessna and made gestures for Bishop to land the plane.
The teen-ager ignored the instructions, authorities said.
Bishop's solo flight lasted between nine and 12 minutes. He died when his Cessna 172 crashed into the 42-story Bank of America Plaza building in downtown Tampa. The front of the plane was wedged into the 28th and 29th floors in a corner.
The building, which was largely vacant at the time, remained intact. Some employees on the top floors were evacuated.
The fuselage jutted over the street until Sunday morning, when it was hauled inside the building and taken to a nearby hangar for investigation.
Authorities removed a computer belonging to the student from his house and will check it for possible clues, the Tampa police chief said.
Bishop was a ninth-grader at East Lake High School in nearby Tarpon Springs.
Ron Stone, assistant superintendent for the Pinellas County schools, said the student was not well known at his school.
Neighbors at the apartment complex where Bishop lived with his mother said they usually saw him when he walked his dogs.
"Just a quiet 15-year-old, you know," one neighbor said. "You would never think that anything was wrong or difficult inside him."
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