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Capital panic ends peacefully
Scripps Howard News Service

May 11, 2005

Washington - A single-engine plane breached restricted airspace over the capital and flew within three miles of the White House before veering west Wednesday, forcing the evacuation of several government buildings and sending the nation's capital into a tizzy.

Two men were taken into custody after the plane they were flying, a Cessna-150, was forced down by a military escort at a small airport in Frederick, Md. U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer told reporters that the incident apparently came about as the result of "errant pilots."

Authorities said the plane is registered to Vintage Aero Club, based at Smoketown Airport in rural Lancaster County, Pa. The plane was scheduled to be flown by Jim Sheaffer of Lititz, Pa., and student pilot Troy Martin, of Akron, Pa., to an air show in Lumberton, N.C.

President Bush was in Waldorf, Md., at the time of the incident, which occurred around noon, biking at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. He was never considered in danger. Vice President Dick Cheney was working in the West Wing and was quickly moved off-site by the Secret Service. First lady Laura Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan were in the residence and taken to a secure area on the grounds.

The violation of the security zone was the most serious since June 9, 2004, when a twin-engine turboprop carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher to the state funeral for President Ronald Reagan entered the security zone over Washington that prohibits private aircraft. The Capitol was evacuated at that time but order quickly was restored.

Scott McClellan, the president's press secretary, said the Federal Aviation Administration determined around 11:28 a.m. that the plane had entered the restricted area and alerted various security agencies, including the Pentagon, about its existence. Efforts to contact the craft via radio proved futile and, at 11:55 a.m., with the plane about 15 miles north of the White House, the intercept order was given.

At least two Black Hawk helicopters, operated by the U.S. Customs Service, were dispatched from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in nearby Alexandria, Va., as were two F-16 fighter jets operated by crews from the District of Columbia Air National Guard's 121st Fighter Squadron from Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Fighter-jet personnel used short-wave radio to signal the pilot and fired four warning flares to get the pilot's attention. They then escorted the aircraft out of restricted airspace.

McClellan said the aircraft came within three miles of the White House before diverting. The threat level at the White House was raised to red _ the highest level _ at 12:03 p.m., before the interception. By 12:11 p.m., the threat level returned to yellow and the all-clear was issued three minutes later.

Air Force Master Sgt. Arthur Powell, a public-affairs noncommissioned officer for the 113th Wing, which includes the 121st Squadron, referred to the operation as "a standard response" to a threat against the capital.

"This is one reason the D.C. area should feel secure," Powell said. "It shows we're ready to respond at a moment's notice."

While the drama played out in the air, security officials were leading the evacuation from the White House, the Capitol, the Treasury building and the Supreme Court. Uniformed officers at each site hustled tourists, office workers and public officials off the grounds, urging everyone to hurry and warning that the threat was real.

Gainer said it took his police about six minutes to move more than 10,000 people out of the Capitol.

"Everyone had the same information and was trying to take the same action," he said.

Ryan Bower, 24, a tourist from St. Joseph, Mo., was in the Senate chamber.

"We were watching the session. All of the sudden guards came into the chamber and told all the senators to start running," Bower said. "Everyone was evacuated equally. It was like a dead run. I found myself running with Sen. (Patrick) Leahy (of Vermont) and other senators."

Two students on their way to speak with Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., were about to enter the Rayburn House Office Building when they were caught in the evacuation frenzy. Northampton, Mass., residents Vivian Mintz King and Rebecca Rom-Frank, both 17, were surprised by the pandemonium.

"We were just leaving the Capitol, and suddenly I started to see people coming out. ... It looked like people started to run and they were all like, 'Go south! Go south!' People were running past us and then it sunk in that 'Oh, this is an evacuation,' " Rom-Frank said.

With the fighter jets and helicopters rushing to intercept, U.S. Park Police raced up the White House and Treasury sidewalks with weapons drawn. Officers on bicycles pushed tourists and workers back while police cars roared to street corners to stop traffic.

Snipers took position on the roofs of nearby office buildings. David Wilkinson, 22, of New York, was standing in front of the White House with his family when the warning was raised.

"They told us to evacuate immediately," Wilkinson said. "There was a couple on bicycles that kept the crowd moving. There was a real sense of urgency and we were walking fast. We just didn't know what was going on. Then we heard the fighter jet fly over."

Wilkinson said law enforcement had everyone pushed back within two or three minutes.

"They were pretty serious about it," he said.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a former Capitol policeman, credited law enforcement for its actions, characterizing the operation as "exceptionally good."

"I am amazed at the level of the professionalism as they took us away," Reid said.

A 15-3/4-mile-radius restricted flying zone, centered around the Washington Monument, was established after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

Powell said aircraft occasionally stray into the no-fly zone over the capital area, particularly during sunny days like Wednesday. But dispatching interceptor aircraft is unusual. It isn't known if the fighter jets were given authority to shoot the Cessna down.

While the incident ended peacefully, authorities are considering ways to further tighten security. The North American Aerospace Defense Command may as early as next month implement a $500,000 laser-warning system that will let pilots know when they are entering restricted airspace.

The system will create a network of cameras and lasers able to constantly scan Washington skies. Pilots will be able to detect flashing green and red laser beams attached to the cameras when they stumble into restricted areas.


Reporters Tara Copp and Ieesha McKinzie contributed to this story.
E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)

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