White House And Fed Buildings Evacuated
Plane Strays Near
Executive Mansion; Bomb Scare Clears Banking Agency
The White House was evacuated and fighter jets were scrambled last night after a pilot accidentally flew his single-engine Cessna into restricted airspace near the Capitol, officials said.
Two F-16 fighter jets escorted the Cessna 182 to Richmond International Airport, law enforcement officials said. The White House evacuation was called off about 15 minutes after the pilot came within four miles of the executive mansion, then made contact with the Federal Aviation Administration's Leesburg flight service station for a weather update.
The emergency occurred a few hours after a bomb scare outside two Federal Reserve buildings in Northwest Washington prompted D.C. and federal authorities to evacuate about 1,300 federal workers. That incident forced the closure of several streets just as the evening commute began.
The errant plane was spotted about 8 p.m. crossing the temporarily restricted airspace at 10,500 feet -- about 8,000 feet lower than allowed -- and did not respond to radio communications from flight control towers, said Secret Service spokesman Brian Marr.
The Secret Service set an emergency procedure into motion, moving staff members and visitors away from the White House, Marr said.
President Bush had returned to the White House from a Republican fundraiser about 20 minutes before the emergency and remained inside, a law enforcement source said.
The pilot, who was flying from Massachusetts to Raleigh, N.C., crossed an airspace restriction imposed after Sept. 11 and skirted the permanently restricted area directly above the White House, said Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman.
The restrictions -- called Notices to Airmen, or NOTAMs -- are updated by the FAA daily. Pilots are required to check their flight paths for NOTAMs, Marr said.
The Cessna landed in Richmond about 8:50 p.m., and the pilot and his passenger waited on the taxiway until federal agents interviewed them, airport officials said.
The pilot could face fines, a letter of reprimand or license revocation, Brown said.
The earlier evacuation occurred about 3:20 p.m., when a custodian working for the Federal Reserve noticed a suspicious object in a trash bin just outside the reserve's two buildings on 20th Street, between Constitution Avenue and C Street NW.
Authorities sent in a robot to defuse the object, then realized it was a false alarm, officials said. Roads were closed from about 3:30 p.m. to 6:40 p.m., snarling traffic.
Staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.
Plane Flew Close To The White House
The small plane that violated Washington airspace and prompted the evacuation of the White House on Wednesday evening was not intercepted by military jets until after it had flown within a few miles of the presidential home, defense officials said yesterday.
While stressing that the White House was not endangered, the military officials acknowledged that the incident shows aircraft have the potential to reach targets in Washington before they can be intercepted.
Twenty-four-hour combat air patrols were put in place over Washington and New York after the Sept. 11 attacks, but they were cut back this spring because of Pentagon concerns about the cost and strain on aircraft and flight crews. The patrols are still flown intermittently, but no fighter jets were aloft over Washington at the time of Wednesday night's incident, officials said.
Instead, F-16s on alert at Andrews Air Force Base were scrambled, but the order came about the time that the Cessna 182 was passing within four miles of the White House. By the time the fighter jets were aloft, the Cessna had flown out of the restricted airspace.
The plane, piloted by a civilian apparently unaware he was violating restricted airspace, came within a mile of prohibited airspace over the White House, the U.S. Capitol and memorials on the Mall. The identify of the pilot could not be learned yesterday. The jets did not establish contact with the pilot, who did not respond to radio communications, until the plane was over Fredericksburg, Va., officials said.
Defense officials said the problem was not the response time, but that the existing restricted buffer zone allows little time to react if fighters are not in the air.
"The fighter aircraft were there in the designated time," a senior defense official said. "The real policy question is: Do you put the buffer out further, or change the defense posture?"
The White House was evacuated for about 15 minutes Wednesday night, but President Bush was kept in the building, a decision officials defended yesterday.
A senior administration official said White House concern about the fighter jets' inability to reach the intruding plane was lessened by the fact that other security measures are in place to protect against aerial attacks on the White House.
"Suffice it to say there are multiple levels of protection for the president," said spokesman Ari Fleischer, who said Bush was not told of the incident until yesterday morning.
"It didn't rise to his level," Fleischer said. "The president could be watching the news, and he could hear that there was a fence-jumper at the White House. That happens."
No staff members were evacuated, the White House said.
A military official said, "Yeah, we couldn't get there in time, but the defense of the White House is not solely based on the ability to scramble jets. There's a whole lot more at play here."
Some officials suggested that the U.S. Secret Service agents who ordered the White House evacuation may have overreacted.
"The Secret Service is looking at the whole incident," the senior administration official said. "The Secret Service automatically goes into its precautionary modes, and different people have discretion to do some things within that mode. They want to make certain that the right judgments were made involving that discretion.
The Cessna, carrying the pilot and one passenger, took off from Gardner, Mass., Wednesday en route to Raleigh, N.C., but ran into bad weather over New Jersey. Approaching Washington, the pilot made a navigational change that brought him into restricted airspace.
A "temporary flight restriction" established by the Federal Aviation Administration after Sept. 11 bars private planes from flying below 18,000 feet within a 15-mile radius of the Washington Monument.
The Cessna, flying at a speed of about 150 miles per hour and an altitude of 10,500 feet, was spotted four miles from the White House at 8:01 p.m., authorities said.
"The aircraft was exhibiting no other threatening behavior," said a military official. At no time did the plane enter even more restrictive airspace near the White House, which has been closed for decades to air traffic.
After trying unsuccessfully to establish communication with the plane, controllers at Reagan National Airport notified the Secret Service.
About a minute later, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which oversees military aircraft protecting the nation, also was notified. Three minutes later, at 8:06 p.m., NORAD relayed word for Andrews Air Force Base to scramble jets, according to a timeline first reported by CNN yesterday and confirmed by military officials.
"What prompted the scramble was the fact the violation had already occurred," a military official said.
At Andrews, about 10 miles from the White House, pilots with the D.C. Air National Guard's 121st Fighter Squadron were on "strip alert," a posture adopted this spring after round-the-clock combat air patrols ended.
The posture requires the squadron to launch two F-16s within 15 minutes of receiving an order. On-call pilots stand at the ready in the squadron headquarters or in a nearby trailer. Fully fueled F-16 jets sit in nearby hangars, already armed with air-to-air missiles.
The F-16s were airborne at 8:17 p.m., within 11 minutes of notification, officials said. "These guys weren't loitering," said an Air Force official. "It was executed pretty well."
By the time they were airborne, the Cessna had passed out of the restricted zone after being in violation for 12 minutes, according to the FAA.
"The process worked as intended," said Army Maj. Barry Venable, a spokesman for NORAD. "We'll certainly review our role in this incident and see if there's anything we need to adjust, but there's been no decision that anything needs to change."
After the Cessna landed at Richmond International Airport, police escorted the pilot and passenger into the terminal, where they were interviewed by the FBI and Secret Service.
The Cessna is owned by Michael Donlon, 44, co-owner of Mohawk Valley Skydiving in Scotia, N.Y. Donlon said last night that two pilots were flying the plane to North Carolina for some modifications so it could be used for skydiving.
One of the pilots called him at 12:30 a.m. to tell him what happened, Donlon said. "I thought these guys were playing a joke on me," he said. But after talking to a Secret Service agent, then turning on the television, he thought, "Oh boy, this might not be good." He said both pilots were from New England, but he declined to give their names.
The pilot had no idea he had violated the airspace, said Jim Mackin, a spokesman for the Secret Service. He said no criminal charges are expected to be filed. But FAA spokesman William Shumann said that if the pilot is found guilty of violating regulations, he could be reprimanded or his license could be suspended or revoked.
The plane was searched and nothing dangerous was found, officials said. A four-seater Cessna 182 has an 88-gallon fuel tank, compared with a 63,705-gallon tank for a 747 plane, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
The plane left Richmond about 9 a.m. yesterday, heading for Raleigh-Durham Airport.
Mackin said that there have been about a dozen violations of airspace near the White House since Sept. 11. He said the other planes were either in constant radio communication with the FAA or momentarily skirted over the line.
Adding to post-Sept. 11 jitters, police yesterday cordoned off some downtown streets for the second consecutive day, snarling traffic as they checked suspicious packages that wound up being false alarms. The latest scare occurred during lunchtime near 15th and K streets NW, police said. The area was closed from 11:05 a.m. to about 1:45 p.m., causing traffic backups.
It followed a massive rush-hour jam Wednesday caused by a similar incident at the Federal Reserve.
Staff writers Mike Allen, David A. Fahrenthold, Don Phillips and Michael Shear contributed to this report.
President Was Not
Told About Approaching Plane
by The Associated
Press, June 21, 2002
WASHINGTON -- President Bush and his wife were not moved -- or even informed -- when many others in the White House were evacuated because of an approaching wayward airplane, his spokesman disclosed Thursday.
FBI officials concluded that the pilot made an innocent navigational error when he flew his small plane into restricted airspace Wednesday night, prompting a partial evacuation of the presidential mansion and the scrambling of two F-16s from Andrews Air Force Base.
"It never did reach the point, however, where it was either necessary to either move or even inform the president. He found out this morning," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.
Journalists working in the West Wing were among those ordered to evacuate by Secret Service officers. Fleischer, struggling to explain why one safety standard applied to personnel and another to the president, said Secret Service officers stationed in the West Wing exercised their own discretion when they hustled people out.
"I think it's obvious the president is always kept the most secure person in the White House," Fleischer said. "And again, there was never a threat to the president."
The plane, a single-engine Cessna 182, got as close as four miles from the executive mansion, violating an expanded no-fly zone established after Sept. 11.
The F-16s scrambled to intercept the pilot, who officials said changed course to avoid bad weather Wednesday during a twilight trip from Massachusetts to Raleigh, N.C. The fighter jets did not catch up to him until 11 minutes after he had left the restricted space on his own.
By then, he was near Fredericksburg, Va., and the fighter pilots instructed the Cessna to land in Richmond, Va., according to a time line compiled by government officials.
A defense official said the plane never made any threatening maneuvers.
Dozens of similar White House airspace violations have occurred in recent weeks, officials said, without any noticeable consequence on the ground.
The difference in Wednesday's episode was that the pilot was nonresponsive when air traffic controllers tried to contact him on emergency frequencies he apparently was not monitoring, said Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin. That was when some security officers decided to start moving people toward the White House gates, he said.
As for the president, "certainly had that flight taken a different path or changed its path, additional procedures would have been activated," Mackin said. "But it didn't come to that."
The pilot and his one passenger were questioned by authorities in Richmond.
out to be navigational error," said FBI chief division counsel Lawrence
Barry of Richmond.
Plane in Restricted Airspace Near White House
But before the streaking jets got close enough to intercept the single-engine plane, it was close enough to the White House to hit the building had the pilot wanted to, the authorities said today.
"They would not have gotten there in time," a senior Bush administration official said of the F-16's based at Andrews Air Force Base, 10 miles from the capital.
President Bush remained in the White House, was never in danger and was not notified of the incident until this morning, aides said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation concluded after questioning the pilot on Wednesday night that he was just an aviator who moved off course to avoid thunderstorms.
But the incident raises questions about the effectiveness of the government plan to protect the White House from terrorists in planes. It may also lead to calls for restoring permanent air patrols over Washington or expanding the restricted airspace around the capital that had already been enlarged after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"This incident is serious enough to require them to re-examine this and make a determination if any changes are necessary," said Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
Indeed, officials at the Office of Homeland Security met today to discuss any additional restrictions, administration officials said.
"The issue is, could you have prevented this if that aircraft had meant to do harm? No," a Pentagon official said. "So do you live with a certain amount of risk, or do you say that's unacceptable and either expand the protected zone or have fighter planes circle the White House day and night?"
White House officials sought today to play down any fears that the pilot of the single-engine Cessna 182 had exposed a security hole in the cocoon around the president.
The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said an aide did not notify Mr. Bush of the incident until this morning, even though the White House was partly evacuated by the Secret Service on Wednesday night.
"It didn't rise to his level," Mr. Fleischer said. "The president was neither notified nor moved because the nature of the threat did not indicate that he needed to be."
Mr. Fleischer added that if the plane had continued on a course that was deemed threatening, "the Secret Service was ready, prepared to do anything they thought was necessary."
Moreover, he said, the Secret Service was well-equipped to defend the White House and protect Mr. Bush.
"Suffice it to say, there are multiple levels of protection for the president that are somewhat redundant, that are overlapping," Mr. Fleischer said, without elaborating.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the military flew 24-hour combat patrols over Washington and New York. Those round-the-clock patrols ended about two months ago after administration officials said stricter airport security, stronger cockpit doors and more federal marshals on flights had sufficiently reduced the threat of attacks. The flights were costing $50 million a week.
Under the new procedures, Air Force F-15's and F-16's fly occasional patrols at random times over several major cities, including Washington and New York. Otherwise, pilots at about 30 bases around the country remain on "strip alert," ready to dash to their jets and take off within 15 minutes of an order.
That is what happened on Wednesday night, officials said today.
At 7:59 p.m., Baltimore controllers notified the tower at Reagan National Airport just outside Washington that an unidentified small plane flying at 10,500 feet was 20 miles from the capital. The plane was suspicious because it had not responded to radio calls to establish proper contact.
Two minutes later, the aircraft flew into the restricted airspace, a 15-mile radius around the Washington Monument that extends up to 18,000 feet, that is off-limits to private planes.
At the same time, controllers notified the Federal Aviation Administration, the Secret Service and the North American Aerospace Command, known as Norad, which controls the fighter jets.
At 8:03 p.m., controllers were told that Norad had scrambled the two F-16's from the 113th Air Wing at Andrews. But crucial minutes passed before the F-16's could rev up and take off. At 8:13 p.m., the Cessna, flying a southwesterly course at about 150 miles an hour, left the restricted airspace. It came within four miles of the White House, officials said.
About five minutes after the plane left the restricted zone, the F-16's took off — 14 minutes after they were ordered aloft, a span that was within their required response time but well after the potential threat had passed.
The pilot, who investigators later learned was flying from Gardner, Mass., to Raleigh, N.C., was unaware of the commotion he had caused until he called in to a flight service center in Leesburg, Va., 32 miles northwest of Washington, for a weather update.
The F-16's escorted him to the airport in Richmond, Va., where he landed at 8:45 p.m.
F.B.I. and Secret Service agents searched the plane and questioned and then released the pilot and a passenger, neither of whom the authorities would identify.