Plane That Caused Capitol Evacuation Nearly Shot Down
But the FAA failed to notify military and homeland security officials, who monitored separate radar displays, about the broken transponder. To everyone but the FAA, radar showed an unidentified intruder entering restricted Washington airspace at 4:24 p.m.
At 4:31, with the plane a minute or two from downtown Washington, officials ordered the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol, where thousands had gathered to await the arrival of Reagan's coffin. The FAA reported to air defense authorities that it was in contact with the plane three minutes later, as the aircraft made the final approach to National Airport.
The Beechcraft was traveling at roughly 240 miles per hour, or four miles a minute. At that speed, it could have reached the center of the no-fly zone in four minutes.
Customs officials said it took their Black Hawk helicopter four minutes to launch that afternoon, quicker than the designated scramble time. Military fighters happened to be on intermittent air patrols that day, but their standard scramble time from the ground is 15 minutes.
For security officials, a key factor is how little time they had to identify Fletcher's aircraft and make critical decisions. One senior federal security official who has studied the incident said the chances of shooting down the plane would have been "50-50" given the time sequence.
The official said the current system is prepared to stop a second assault, as was the case Sept. 11, not a first attack. Expanding the restricted flight zone -- or a more radical move, such as closing National Airport -- would be required to provide a greater level of security, he said.
Some House investigators are pushing the Transportation Security Administration to improve coordination between a half-dozen agencies. Officials at the TSA and the Pentagon have revived calls for the FAA to expand the restricted flight zones, which would build in more time to make and execute decisions.
Close calls in the past have prompted changes. On June 19, 2002, a Cessna flew over the capital area before it could be intercepted, prompting the evacuation of Vice President Cheney from the White House. Military officials at the time acknowledged that aircraft could reach targets in Washington before they were intercepted by fighters on ground alert.
Authority for air patrols to shoot down a civilian aircraft, once limited to the president, has been delegated to the secretary of defense and his deputy; to Eberhart, as NORAD commander; and to the commander of NORAD's continental U.S. region in Florida, Air Force Maj. Gen. Craig R. McKinley. McKinley has said orders to shoot down aircraft are practiced "probably eight to 15 times a week."
A senior federal security official said the process involved in firing ground-based air defenses operated by the Army or Army National Guard is more complex and needs refinement. Some military officials initially questioned the value of installing short-range missile systems, saying the range and reaction time made their use unlikely.
Customs agents with submachine guns are trained to shoot from the Black Hawks and have authority to use lethal force if their lives or the lives of others are endangered, said Charles E. Stallworth II, director of air and marine operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Homeland security officials, although aware of limitations, say the system in place is working well and has added layers of protection unavailable on Sept. 11, 2001.
Randy Beardsworth, head of the Department of Homeland Security directorate that includes the TSA and customs enforcement, said advanced radar, computer databases and other tools used by the multi-agency system provide an unprecedented early warning system.
More than 2,000 aircraft "of interest" have been detected over Washington airspace since January 2003, Beardsworth said. The number of aircraft violating the no-fly zone fell from 164 in the six months before Jan. 20, 2003, to 30 after that date through May, 14, 2004.
All 30 intruders were successfully identified, Beardsworth said. By comparison, another federal official said that two years ago, military jets could identify and intercept only about 40 percent of intruders in training drills.
Beardsworth, however, said he does not disagree with those who say the system may not be geared to stop a determined attacker. Like other security officials, he noted that the system's limits are forced by political compromises between security and civilian aviation interests.
Beardsworth said that shooting down hostile aircraft is the responsibility of the Defense Department, not his agency.
"Our role is to help them by having a clear picture when they have to make that tough decision," he said. "Can you imagine how much tougher the decision would be if you didn't have the ability to deter small craft from coming in, if you didn't have the ability to fly out there, detect, identify and deter?"
© 2004 The Washington Post Company