Flight school's policies questionedBy ALICIA CALDWELL and MONIQUE FIELDS
© St. Petersburg Times
CLEARWATER -- The flight instructor gave the 15-year-old the keys to the airplane so he could do a routine safety check. Alone.
Charles Bishop's flight instructor remained inside the flight school on the second floor Saturday afternoon, a procedure the owner of National Aviation Flight School on Sunday called "as normal as can be."
But a day after the teen took off alone in a Cessna and crashed it into the side of the 42-story Bank of America Plaza in Tampa, the flight school's practice was questioned by aviation experts and under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration..
The former owner of the flight school, who has more than 60 years of flying experience, said Sunday he would not let such a young student with only six hours of flying time conduct a preflight inspection without supervision.
"My thought would be, and I did flight instruction myself, is that you don't leave a student out there alone to do a preflight before he solos," said William Krusen of Tampa, who founded the school in 1968. "Certainly, you would want to keep your eye on a fellow doing a preflight to make sure he would do it right."
FAA spokesman Christopher White, citing the investigation, wouldn't comment on whether it was wrong for the instructor to leave Bishop alone with the plane. But he said that aviation rules call for the teacher to be present for the check.
"Generically, prior to a student's solo, an instructor has to be present in the area during the preflight check," White said. "Once a pilot does his solo flight, then he can do a preflight himself."
Bishop was 15 years old, and FAA regulations require pilots to be at least 16 years old before flying solo and at least 17 years old before obtaining a pilot's license.
Robert Cooper, owner of the flight school, which is based at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport in mid Pinellas, said it is typical for instructors to allow students to conduct the safety check without supervision. The instructor would recheck the plane before it would be flown.
Cooper likened the instructor's decision to teaching a child how to ride a bike. A parent eventually lets the child pedal on his own.
"You trust your student. You give him the keys and a book to preflight the airplane. It's part of the training," Cooper said.
Under no circumstances was Bishop supposed to take off alone.
"He chose to do it. He knew what he was doing. He knew he was violating the law. Keep in mind, he stole my airplane," Cooper said.
During the check, Bishop was supposed to make sure the $180,000 plane was functioning properly. He was to check dozens of things, such as whether the park brake was set, whether the ignition was off and how much fuel was available for flight.
Details of what happened in the minutes after Bishop got the keys are emerging slowly.
Bishop appeared to start the plane's engine without applying the brakes because it zoomed along the tarmac, said Steve Sommer, who watched the takeoff.
He didn't stop at a yellow line, which is standard procedure, and ask the tower's controllers for permission to fly. He also taxied with the plane's flaps in the down position, said Sommer, director of corporate flight operations for AIR-1, which is at the airport.
"What was particularly abnormal in addition to everything else was you never use flaps for take off," said Sommer.
The teenager from East Lake had been a student at National Aviation for about 10 months and was among 20 to 25 students younger than 16 who attended the school in the last two years, said Cooper, who has owned the school since July 2000.
Some instructors won't teach a 15-year-old how to fly.
Tad Hall, a flight instructor at the Clearwater Airpark Flight School, discourages those younger than 16: "I think they're not mature enough at that point to make good decisions."
-- Times staff writer Kelly Ryan Gilmer contributed to this report.
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