Cessna 'real close' to airliner
By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
As Southwest Airlines Flight 2229 climbed away from Tampa International Airport, an air traffic controller suddenly warned the pilots that their Boeing 737 was headed straight toward a single-engine Cessna.
"Southwest 2229, traffic twelve o'-clock, less than a mile eastbound, altitude unknown," the controller said.
A Palm Harbor teenager had just stolen the Cessna from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on the first Saturday in January. Charles Bishop was crossing Tampa Bay toward MacDill Air Force Base.
The Southwest pilots looked out their window and saw the small plane. They quickly reduced power to slow their climb.
"He's in sight, light Cessna about a thousand feet above us here," the pilot said.
After the controller directed the airliner to a new heading, the Southwest pilot revealed how close the big jet came to the small plane.
"Ahh, real close," the pilot said, according to a transcript obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.
That transcript and one released Monday by the Federal Aviation Administration reveal new details about the drama on Jan. 5 when the 15-year-old Bishop crashed the Cessna into the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa. Although Bishop never spoke with controllers, the transcripts show how the Coast Guard tracked his plane and how controllers tried to clear the skies after the crash.
The Tampa tower was notified at 4:52 p.m. when a St. Petersburg-Clearwater controller called on a hotline and referred to Bishop's Cessna as a "primary target." The teen had not activated the plane's radar transponder, so the aircraft was showing up on controllers' screens as a small dot from primary radar.
"I don't know if you can see him -- a mile to our southeast is a primary target, southeast-bound. Do you show that on your radar -- a primary target a mile to our southeast?" the St. Petersburg-Clearwater controller asked.
"I see something down there," the Tampa controller replied.
"Okay, that's a Cessna departed here unauthorized. We don't know what he's doing, he just took off," the St. Petersburg-Clearwater controller said.
Neither tower tried to contact Bishop, according to the transcripts. Officials from the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said that was appropriate because the plane had been stolen and the controllers believed it was futile to contact the pilot.
"It's clear the controllers on the transcript were doing their job (properly)," said Ruth Marlin, NATCA executive vice president.
As Bishop's plane headed toward MacDill, a Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter had just taken off on a routine mission from the Pinellas County airport. MacDill air traffic controllers asked the Coast Guard pilot to fly near the Cessna.
The Coast Guard pilot intercepted the plane near Davis Islands and told the Tampa tower, "We're currently in the vicinity of Tampa General . . . (unintelligible) chase to a single Cessna, November 2371 November. (That was the plane's tail number -- N2371N.) Been advised he took off from St. Pete. It's a 15-year-old student, took off with unauthorized clearance. We're trying to give him hand signals to maybe get him to land at Peter O. Knight, however he doesn't seem to be responding and we're just -- we may impede on your airspace here, sir."
Bishop kept going.
As his plane approached the downtown high-rises, the Coast Guard pilot tried to give a quick update to the control tower.
"Tampa, Tampa, be advised . . ." said a voice believed to be the Coast Guard pilot.
It was too late.
The Cessna slammed into the 28th floor of the Bank of America building, triggering the whoop-whoop-whoop of the plane's emergency locator transmitter, which continued to blare like a car alarm for about two minutes.
Bishop, who left behind a suicide note expressing sympathy with Osama bin Laden, was killed by the impact. His mother has blamed the suicide on Accutane, an acne medication he was taking. Last week she filed a $70-million lawsuit against the drug manufacturer and said that the drug "poisoned him."
The transcript also shows how controllers moved quickly to clear the skies after the crash, which had immediately raised suspicions of terrorism.
About two minutes after the crash, the Tampa controller told a colleague to stop takeoffs from the Tampa airport. He then used the hotline to make the same request to St. Petersburg-Clearwater.
"Stop all departures," he said.
Later, when a St. Petersburg-Clearwater controller asked whether they could allow a plane to continue through the restricted airspace to land, the Tampa tower responded:
"We don't want anything in the air."
-- Times staff writer Bill Adair can be reached at (202) 463-0575 or email@example.com
This is a partial transcript of the conversations between the control tower at Tampa International Airport and Southwest Airlines Flight 2229 as pilots saw Charles Bishop in the small Cessna:
TOWER: Southwest 2229, traffic twelve o'clock, less than a mile eastbound, altitude unknown.
SOUTHWEST: He's in sight, light Cessna about a thousand feet above us here.
TOWER: Okay, turn right heading of 350.
SOUTHWEST: Right 350, Southwest 2229, ahh real close.
TOWER: Yes sir, it's some kid -- took off with the airplane unauthorized.
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