WASHINGTON – Two men in a small private plane forced the frenzied evacuation of tens of thousands from the U.S. Capitol and the White House Wednesday and the plane narrowly escaped being shot down when it strayed deep into restricted airspace.
The airspace incursion to within 3 miles of the White House was described by military officials as the most serious since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. But it apparently was the result of inattentive piloting, officials said.
Still, the incident displayed the apparent success of elaborate new safeguards initiated since Sept. 11. Two F-16 fighter jets joined by a Blackhawk helicopter and a Citation jet from the Department of Homeland Security, confronted the private plane in time to shoot it down, an order that was never given, defense officials said. “They were there in plenty of time,” said NORAD spokesman Master Sgt. John Tomassi.
The pilot failed at first to respond to urgent radio contact or to the first of four flares fired by the Air Force jets just off its wings, defense officials said. When the Cessna 152 was finally diverted, it was escorted to an airport in Frederick, Md., where the pilot and his passenger were questioned and later released.
The incident set off momentary panic among some government workers and a chain of events that shuttered Congress, the Supreme Court and a number of other Washington federal landmarks. Capitol Hill workers described the exodus of federal workers – some 25,000 work in the Capitol complex alone – as a fairly organized and speedy. Yet when senators and reporters outside the Senate chamber failed to move fast enough, police officers barked, “Don’t walk – run!”
A fighter jet screamed overhead, and police emergency vehicles screeched through the streets as the crowd ran. Mounted police galloped through the crowds on their horses.
President Bush was on a bike ride at a suburban Maryland nature reserve at the time, about half an hour away by car. But Vice President Dick Cheney was evacuated from the White House in a motorcade to an undisclosed location, and first lady Laura Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan, who was visiting, were removed to a secure location.
Friends identified the two men aboard the aircraft as Hayden Shaeffer of Lititz, Pa., a veteran pilot who was at the controls, and Troy D. Martin, a student pilot from Akron, Pa. The Cessna is jointly owned by 10 members of the Vintage Aero Club of Smoketown, Pa., according to club member Jack Henderson.
The two men were flying to an air show in Lumberton, N.C., when they were forced down, he said. Sheaffer is a flight instructor and Martin was his student, he said.
Henderson, the club’s acting secretary, described the men as “salt of the earth.” Sheaffer is a retiree and Martin is self-employed. The men’s families did not return phone calls on Wednesday. Henderson was at a loss to say how they could have strayed into restricted airspace.
“He seems like an adequate pilot,” Henderson said. “He obviously either misread the map, or his radios weren’t working properly. I don’t know how they stumbled in there.”
The plane was searched and the wayward pilots were questioned by teams from the Maryland state police, the Secret Service, and the FBI and released without charges. Their errant flight path was deemed “accidental,” Secret Service spokesman Jonathan Sherry said.
A government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said FAA controllers saw the plane on their radar before it entered the outer ring of Washington’s restricted air space, which extends 14 miles in all directions from the Washington monument. All aircraft flying through this area must identify themselves to ground controllers.
But the pilot did not respond to attempts by FAA controllers to establish radio contact. Controllers were finally able to establish radio communication with the pilot after they learned the plane’s tail number and issued a specific call. That was at 12:15 p.m. By that time, the plane was already leaving the air defense zone and the all-clear was sounded, about 16 minutes after the alert took effect.
“It was obviously pilot mistake, and they were having some radio issues,” said Barry Maddox, a spokesman for the Baltimore FBI field office. “They were cooperative. There was no indication of harm to the public.”
The incident was referred to the FAA for possible civil penalties for violating restricted air space, which could cost the pilot his license, Secret Service and FBI officials said.
“My understanding is, they were not allowed to leave in the airplane,” Maddox said.