Despair Beneath His Wings

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When 15-year-old Charles Bishop commandeered a small plane on Jan. 5, his family's ghosts may have been seated beside him. In 1984, before he was born, his parents attempted twice to commit suicide together—once trying to stab each other—because they were denied a marriage license (his mother was then only 17). In 1986 they had Charles and got married, but divorced soon after when his father became an abusive husband. Charles and his mother moved around the country, and during the Gulf War she changed their name to Bishop to rid them of his father's Arabic surname, Bishara. But by the time Charles entered high school last year in Tarpon Springs, Fla., near Tampa, he seemed a bright, contented teen, far removed from the turmoil he had been born into.

He apparently wasn't. Bishop flew the single-engine Cessna into a Tampa office building, killing only himself and leaving behind a suicide note declaring support for Osama bin Laden. Bishop had veered menacingly over Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base—from which the Afghan war is being directed—prompting new fears about security at a time when more small, lightly regulated aircraft are filling the skies. Bishop's close friend Emerson Favreau told Time that days before the crash Bishop asked him how to locate the command center inside MacDill. Investigators think he originally targeted the base.

What's alarming about Bishop's rogue flight is how easily it began: his instructor gave him keys to inspect the Cessna, and the unlicensed pilot took off from St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport while the teacher wasn't looking. Robert Cooper, who owns the National Aviation Flight School, where Bishop took lessons, defends the school's role, saying, "This is not an issue of security. It's an issue of trust."

But what set Bishop off? The boy's mother Julia Bishop insisted through her lawyer that Charles knew nothing of her complicated past or that of his father Charles Bishara, whom officials could not locate but who is believed to be living in Massachusetts. Bishara's father Robert Bishara of Everett, Mass., says he hasn't seen his son in six years, and that the Tampa tragedy was the first news he had heard of his grandson since the 1980s. "I lost my grandson the same day I found him again," he says. The complete suicide note, which was to be made public this week after the boy's funeral, could shed more light. At his home, police found a prescription for Accutane, a potent acne drug recently brought to the attention of Congress because it has been anecdotally linked—with no scientific evidence—to dozens of suicides and suicide attempts since 1982. A pending toxicology report should reveal if the boy was taking the drug.

Police at first tried to describe Bishop as a troubled loner. Yet Favreau said Charles "never complained about his home life," and teachers cast him as a buoyant student who denounced bin Laden in an essay. Favreau notes, however, that Charles dropped out of sight for long periods of time during the last holiday break, telling friends he was working on a "project." He also hinted they should watch the news for something big, reportedly telling his grandmother the day of the crash not to let his enemies attend his funeral. "I gotta think that project was his suicide," says Favreau.

The general aviation industry, meanwhile, is circling its Cessnas. Even before the Bishop incident, measures were pending in Congress that would mandate annual psychological tests for the nation's 650,000 licensed pilots; the schools are pushing to tighten only terminal security. Whatever emerges, Bishop's fatal flight may teach aviation schools a new lesson in safety.

—With reporting by Andrew Goldstein/Washington and Michael Peltier/Tallahassee