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Military not warned about suicide plane

By
PAMELA HESS, Pentagon correspondent

WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- U.S. civil aviation authorities failed to warn the military that a Cessna plane had been stolen until it had already been crashed into a Tampa, Fla., bank building after buzzing a military airbase, officials said Monday.

Instead, the North American Aerospace Defense Command heard about the crash on Federal Aviation Administration radio traffic and scrambled fighter planes near Miami to fly protective missions over the Tampa area, NORAD spokesman Maj. Barry Venable told United Press International Monday.

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By that time, the Cessna, piloted by a 15-year old boy on an apparent suicide mission, had buzzed MacDill Air Force Base, home to U.S. Central Command and Gen. Tommy Franks, who is running the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Student pilot Charles Bishop stole the Cessna from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport where he was preparing for a flying lesson at 4:50 p.m. and flew about 14 minutes before hitting the building, National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Paul Schlamm said. His flight path included about a minute of flying over MacDill's airfield at an altitude of about 100 feet, news reports said.

Schlamm said the NTSB is still putting together an accurate timeline.

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But it is already clear that NORAD, which has responsibility for protecting the United States from air attack, did not know about the incident until 5:13 p.m. -- nearly ten minutes after the crash. At 5:16, NORAD's southeast air defense sector branch alerted fighters at Homestead Air Reserve Base, about 270 miles away from Tampa. They took off at 5:21 and established a "combat air patrol" over Tampa by 5:45, Venable said. The CAP ended about 30 minutes later.

"We didn't know about it until after it had crashed," Venable told UPI.

Schlamm said the plane hit the Bank of America building around 5:04 p.m.

One detail that remains unclear is how soon after Bishop took off did St. Petersburg airport notify the FAA of the problem. FAA spokesman Les Dorr said he does not yet have an accurate timeline.

Small aircraft present a significant challenge to the U.S. military, sources said. They do not have to file flight plans and their baggage is not routinely checked. They can also be used to spread chemical or biological weapons, a fact that heightens military concerns.

"There are very few controls on them. They can be up and into your target very quickly," a military source told UPI.

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A Pentagon official close to the issue said there was no way to prevent a pilot taking off from a local airport and from crashing into a local target, because of the short timeline involved.

Pentagon officials told UPI U.S. military bases have no means of defending themselves from air attack other than by scrambling fighter planes. The situation that is unlikely to change, they said, as it would be impractical, expensive and dangerous to install air defense systems.

In the meantime, random "combat air patrols" continue over major U.S. cities, a practice put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and near Washington. In general, fighters can be scrambled and over any U.S. city within 20 minutes of notification, a Pentagon official said.

Civilian planes routinely violate military airspace without incident.

"Do you really want us shooting down every student pilot who strays into our airspace?" one official asked.

On Sept. 11, the president gave the Air Force permission to shoot down civilian planes that posed a threat to the United States. Two fighters that flew from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to protect the Pentagon and Washington arrived too late to do anything. Fighters from Massachusetts also were scrambled to protect the second World Trade Center tower, without success because of the distance they had to travel.

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That arrangement was made permanent shortly thereafter, with authority vested in two major generals at NORAD.

At MacDill and the Pentagon, the level of concern about this incident was low. The small size and light weight and small fuel capacity of the Cessna makes it an inefficient weapon if the intent was to use it as a missile, as the planes were in Sept. 11, a Pentagon official said.

Sgt. Chris Miller, a spokesman for MacDill, said at no time did the base feel threatened by the flyer.

"There was no threat to MacDill at any time," Miller said. "This was a random act."

Miller said Tampa International Airport warned MacDill of the plane when it was still 3 miles away. Its own radar picked up the craft when it was about 1.5 miles away.

"But from what I know of it so far, the alert process, there was not a perceived threat," said Joint Staff spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem at the Pentagon Monday. "I mean, here was a 15-year-old flight student who did something untoward and unknown to anybody else. He didn't take off with a flight full of explosives ... 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."

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"We need to allow the time for the FAA and NORAD and the commander of the Air Force base at MacDill to go back and ascertain the facts in a post- mortem of this to know exactly what happened and then what would need to be different, if anything at all," Stufflebeem said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said security arrangements constantly are under review.

"I'm sure this incident is being looked at appropriately," she said Monday.

Pentagon officials told UPI that U.S. military bases have no means of defending themselves from air attack other than by scrambling fighter planes. The situation is unlikely to change, they said, as it would be impractical, expensive and dangerous to install air defense systems.

In the meantime, random "combat air patrols" continue over major U.S. cities, a practice put in place after Sept. 11. In general, fighters can be scrambled and over any U.S. city within 20 minutes of notification, a Pentagon official said.

Civilian planes routinely violate military airspace without incident.

"Do you really want us shooting down every student pilot who strays into our airspace?" one official asked.

Indeed, a teenage pilot once successfully penetrated the most heavily defended airspace in the world.

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On May 28, 1997, 19-year old West German Matias Rust flew a Cessna from Helsinki, Finland, to Moscow and landed in Red Square -- home to the Kremlin, Lenin's tomb and St. Basel's Cathedral. The square was heavily defended with anti-aircraft artillery and missiles, but Rust flew under radar and landed safely. He was tried and jailed for 14 months.

Closer to home, on Sept. 12, 1994, Frank Corder, a truck driver, stole a single-engine aircraft from a Maryland airport and crashed it within yards of the White House.

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