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Lessons from a plane crash

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Investigators may never truly understand why a 15-year-old boy decided to steal a small plane and ram it into a skyscraper in Tampa, Fla., over the weekend, despite the note he left behind saying he sympathized with Osama bin Laden. But the incident does call to attention a much larger problem.

America has approximately 18,000 small airports. Little has been done since Sept. 11 to make them more secure. While commercial airports make passengers stand in line for hours before having their luggage and their persons thoroughly scanned for weapons and explosives, pilots and passengers at small general-aviation airports can simply hop on and go.

Is it possible to require thorough checks at small airports without costing so much money that private pilots would end up paying prohibitive fees? Is it even worth the bother, considering a car bomb could cause as much damage as a small plane loaded with explosives?

The answer may well be that this is a part of aviation best left alone for now, but the subject still is worth discussing. Homeland security director Tom Ridge ought to be organizing meetings and exploring possibilities.

It appears there was little the military could do to stop Charles Bishop, the boy who crashed in Tampa. He stole an airplane while waiting for his flight instructor to come start a lesson, then he failed to respond to a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who flew next to him and motioned for him to land. People were aware of the emergency, and the military had scrambled jets to intercept the boy, but they arrived too late.

No one could reasonably expect military jets to be constantly roaming the skies over major U.S. cities. Even if they had shot down Bishop's plane, the damage couldn't have been any less than what he caused by crashing into the building. He was the only casualty.

Still, this incident does raise concerns. During the Olympics, all general aviation will be banned within a 45-mile radius of Salt Lake City. Commercial aviation will be banned during the opening and closing ceremonies. Presumably, military aircraft will be ready to respond immediately to any breach of this perimeter. For at least 2 1/2 weeks, Utahns can feel a measure of security.

Beyond that, though, the many small airports nationwide appear to pose a gigantic risk. Perhaps the only safeguard is vigilance on the part of everyone associated with them.