Plane That Caused Capitol Evacuation Nearly Shot Down
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2004; Page A01
The top general at the North American Aerospace Defense Command was on the telephone and prepared to order an F-16 fighter to shoot down an unidentified plane that turned out to be carrying the governor of Kentucky to former president Ronald Reagan's funeral last month, according to two federal security officials briefed separately about the incident.
The tense incident June 9 ended after the twin-engine Beechcraft King Air carrying Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) turned to land at Reagan National Airport. But the close call caused officials to reassess safeguards for the airspace around Washington and prompted calls to expand the no-fly zone beyond its current 16-mile radius.
Although many planes have violated restrictions imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the June 9 episode was extraordinary because the aircraft penetrated so deeply into the no-fly zone during a high-security event and remained unidentified to air defense officials for several critical minutes. Current and former homeland security officials said the incident was a significant security breakdown.
The episode, described by some officials as the closest the government has come to downing a civilian plane over Washington since Sept. 11, 2001, will be the subject of two hearings on Capitol Hill today. Civil aviation officials will testify before a House subcommittee on aviation, and military officials have been invited to a classified briefing before the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.
"Even without the communications breakdowns involved in Governor Fletcher's flight, serious questions remain about the adequacy of our air defense system," said Rep. Jim Turner (Tex.), ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. "Does the existing no-fly zone around our nation's capital give sufficient time to intercept a terrorist controlled flight?"
A spokesman for the commander of NORAD, Air Force Gen. Ralph E. "Ed" Eberhart, would not comment on the handling of the incident, saying that rules of engagement are classified. But he and others pointed out that protocols were followed and that the air defense system as a whole is providing unprecedented security.
"The fact that the plane landed without incident June 9 indicates that interagency coordination procedures developed since 9/11 work," said the spokesman, Michael Kucharek.
A reconstruction, based in part on interviews with officials who spoke on condition they not be named, has revealed new details. Senior officials at two federal agencies who are familiar with how the air defense system worked that day said a fighter plane sent to intercept Fletcher's plane initially could not make visual contact because of cloud cover.
As a result, Eberhart did not issue the order to shoot down Fletcher's plane, according to the two officials, as well as a third government official who was briefed later on the incident. Interviews and a timeline prepared by congressional investigators also show that Fletcher's plane turned to land before it was identified.
"They had the general on the phone, and he was in position to make the call. . . . This was the closest we have come to making that difficult decision, triggering a chain of events that could be pretty horrific," one official said.
The air defense system for Washington is unique, and many of its operations are classified. Unveiled in January 2003, the system was created to track all flights and to intercept aircraft that do not follow strict protocols. It replaced the fighter patrols that guarded the nation's capital beginning Sept. 11, 2001, a defense that was costly and did not provide federal authorities with the tools to investigate whether there were patterns in the violations.
The defense system includes a no-fly zone that bars most air traffic from a ring that extends 16 miles from the Washington Monument -- the major exception being commercial flights to and from National Airport. A larger restricted zone, the D.C. Air Defense Identification Zone, extends to about 50 miles from Washington and requires pilots to identify their aircraft, activate identification beacons and stay in two-way radio contact with air controllers.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement helicopters and Cessna jets patrol the zone unarmed, while air defense artillery on the ground and fighter jets on alert or on irregular air patrols are poised to intercept an intruder.
On June 9, the Beechcraft King Air was flying with a broken transponder, a device that transmits an identifying signal picked up by ground controllers. After takeoff, the pilot, as required, notified Federal Aviation Administration officials in Ohio about the problem at 2:56 p.m.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company