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More Columbine Than 9/11

January 09, 2002

The student pilot who stole his flight school's plane and crashed it into a Tampa, Fla., skyscraper Saturday evoked not one but two national nightmares. Before emulating their depraved act, 15-year-old Charles J. Bishop wrote a suicide note extolling the hijackers who brought down the World Trade Center. But he probably had more in common with the troubled adolescents who in recent years have acted out their alienation by shooting classmates or teachers and, in at least one case, themselves.

Miraculously, only Bishop was killed in the crash. Damage was largely confined to an unoccupied 28th-floor law office.

Private pilots have been quick to distinguish the troubled teenager from terrorists. What happened in Tampa, said a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn., was simply a breach of trust between student and instructor when Bishop took off without his teacher. Private aviation, the group argues, doesn't need the level of security imposed on commercial airlines and airports after Sept. 11. After all, the stolen plane was only about the size of a sedan and lacked the fuel capacity to pose the same threat as hijacked jetliners.

All this is true--to a point. But if a suicidal teenager can hijack a small airplane and fly it into a high-rise, so could a terrorist. And even a plane the size of a sedan could carry explosives--or crash into a commercial jetliner. That this one did not was probably due to the quick reflexes of a Southwest Airlines pilot who dodged the single-engine Cessna as it took off from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

No measure can protect the public from every risk. It would be impractical and probably impossible to subject the nation's 200,000 private planes and 500,000 pilots to the same degree of security as commercial aircraft. But even the pilots association, when it is not busy protecting its members' independence, knows that security can and should be improved. Even before Tampa, it called for government review of existing licenses and for the issuing of new, difficult-to-counterfeit pilot licenses with a photo ID. It recommended steps that owners can take to prevent airplane theft and to verify the identity of passengers. These are good if belated precautions.

Investigators are right to try to reconstruct the past of a teenager described as both an honors student and a loner, but they should do so with full knowledge that the next danger will no doubt come from a different and perhaps more professional corner.

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