Crash sparks concerns about MacDill defenses
By BILL ADAIR and PAUL de la GARZA
WASHINGTON -- The single-engine Cessna carrying a troubled teenager and a note of sympathy about Osama bin Laden flew directly over Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, the nerve center for the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
But there were few defenses at the base to stop it.
There are no fighter jets at MacDill. Two F-15's were scrambled from Homestead Air Reserve Base 200 miles away, but they weren't aloft until after the Cessna 172 reached downtown Tampa and crashed into the 42-story Bank of America Plaza.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young said Sunday that he was concerned about the base's vulnerability. He planned to ask Pentagon officials to make sure the base is adequately protected.
"It's something that has got to be reviewed quickly," said Young, the Largo Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He said that Saturday's crash in downtown Tampa appeared to be a suicide but that similar planes could be used by terrorists.
"That small plane could be loaded with enough explosives to make it into a flying bomb," Young said.
MacDill, at the southern tip of Tampa, houses Centcom, Special Operations Command and a unit of lumbering C-130 refueling tankers. A squadron of F-16 fighter jets based at MacDill was transferred to an Arizona base in the early 1990s.
The tiny Cessna 172 flew directly to MacDill after it departed St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on Saturday, according to Joe Formoso, the head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in Tampa.
Once the plane was over the midpoint of MacDill's main runway, it turned south over the base. Shortly before it reached the tip of the base, it made a sharp left turn and headed back north toward downtown Tampa.
MacDill controllers estimated the plane was at an altitude of 1,000 feet as it passed over the base, according to Formoso.
But MacDill officials said Sunday they never believed the plane had hostile intentions.
"We didn't feel there was any threat to MacDill Air Force Base at the time," Lt. Col. Rich McClain, a base spokesman, said at a news conference in Tampa. The Cessna pilot did not make any threatening maneuver and was in the MacDill-controlled airspace over South Tampa for 1 to 11/2 minutes.
MacDill authorities did nothing to stop the student pilot, 15-year-old Charles J. Bishop of East Lake, who was not in contact with air traffic controllers. But they asked a Coast Guard helicopter that was aloft to intercept the plane.
Sgt. Chris Miller, another MacDill spokesman, said the base relies on the Tampa airport's control tower for word about suspicious aircraft because of the large volume of civilian air traffic in the bay area. He declined to say what type of defenses MacDill has in place to defend itself against an air threat, citing security concerns.
MacDill is guarded by only 50-caliber machine guns, a defense official said. He also said the weapons, manned by soldiers who sit in bunkers around the clock, easily could have destroyed the Cessna. On the ground, the base is also surrounded by a series of concrete barriers. The Coast Guard provides protection on the water, since two-thirds of the base is exposed to the bay.
Miller, meanwhile, said MacDill's defenses were adequate against an air threat. "There are things in place to take care of that," he said.
Miller said MacDill had no plans for a review of the incident Saturday.
"Thank goodness, it was just a random act, a kid just going through," Miller said. "He just happened to go through our airspace."
Saturday's incident highlights the security challenge facing the federal government. With thousands of possible targets for terrorist attacks, the government must decide how to allocate its resources.
The Pentagon, for example, is protected by many layers of security -- some that are visible and some that supposedly are not. The most visible security includes several Humvees with large machine guns that sit along a nearby road that many local residents use to drive to a shopping mall.
The Washington area also gets constant air protection from F-15's and F-16's. The planes fly high above the city, ready to intercept hostile aircraft.
MacDill has key tenants that include Centcom and Special Operations Command, which oversees the military's highly secretive special operations forces. But the Tampa Bay area, like most large cities, gets only occasional air patrols.
Shortly after Saturday's crash, the FAA requested a patrol from the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which then scrambled two F-15's from Homestead Air Reserve Base south of Miami. But that request did not come until about 5:15 p.m. Saturday, about 10 minutes after the plane had crashed into the skyscraper. The planes were strictly patrolling for other suspicious aircraft and had no "shoot to kill" order, a NORAD spokeswoman said.
Butch Wilson, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the Homestead planes were too late and too far away to stop the young pilot.
The government's response "was occurring when the plane hit the building," Wilson said . "Things were moving. But in nine to 12 minutes, by the time you get everyone moving, it's too late, it's not enough time."
Billie Vincent, the former chief of security for the FAA, said Sunday that there are so many small "general aviation" planes in the United States -- more than 200,000 -- that there will always be a tiny risk from suicidal pilots.
But he said there were many safeguards in the system to minimize the risk of a similar accident involving a larger airplane. Those planes are more closely monitored by airlines and air traffic controllers.
"As free and open as general aviation is in this country, it's pretty hard to get 300 pounds of explosives and put it in an airplane," Vincent said.
Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant, said on MSNBC Sunday that the government can reduce the risk in aviation, but not eliminate it.
"We can defend ourselves against terrorism," Boyd said, "but a 15-year-old kid bent on suicide is very hard to defend against.
"You can't have combat air patrols over the entire U.S. looking out for 15-year-old kids who have stolen airplanes."
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