By Michael E. Ruane and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 12, 2005
Two lost aviators flying with outdated maps from a rural Pennsylvania airstrip triggered a red alert at the White House yesterday, along with the frantic evacuation of the Capitol and the Supreme Court, before they were intercepted by Air Force jets lobbing warning flares.
The 15-minute aerial encounter, watched by rapt workers in downtown Washington office buildings, turned out to be a blunder by confused fliers in a small plane, but it illustrated how easily potential danger can trip the capital's tightly wired alert systems.
As the aircraft bore down on Washington from the north and officials could not contact the pilot, the White House's internal threat level went from yellow to orange and then to red within four minutes, fighters were scrambled and occupants and visitors to the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House were sent scurrying for safety.
The aircraft flew over the vice president's residence, a senior federal security official said, came within moments of reaching the White House and was close to being shot down.
Alarms sounded and emergency lights went on in congressional office buildings about noon, as police shouted warnings and people hurried for exits and walked, or ran, down marble staircases and north toward Union Station, witnesses said.
Outside, sirens wailed and the sound of the jets could be heard overhead. "It was relatively orderly," said one Senate worker who fled the Capitol. "But there's still panic, there's always panic. You start to run faster than you think you can run."
Officials said 35,000 people were evacuated from the Capitol and adjacent office complexes. An additional 200 were eva cuated from the White House.
First lady Laura Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan, who was visiting, were ushered to a bunker beneath the White House for safety, and Vice President Cheney was taken to a secure location, officials said. The president, who was riding his bicycle at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in suburban Maryland, was alerted by his security detail after the drama was over.
The two aviators were identified as Hayden L. "Jim" Sheaffer, 69, a truck driver from Lititz, Pa., north of Lancaster, and Troy Martin, 36, a vacuum cleaner system salesman from Akron, seven miles away. They were released without charges after authorities determined that they posed no security threat.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the government has very specific rules on when an intruding civilian aircraft can be shot down. Pentagon officials said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was contacted and available to execute a shoot-down order if necessary.
Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said: "This guy probably came as close as he could come without getting shot out of the air."
Authorities said the plane's occupants were so clueless that when officials finally made radio contact and ordered the plane to divert, the fliers refused, asserting their right to proceed on their way.
It was only when the F-16s fired four bright flares across the plane's nose that the two men realized the gravity of their situation, officials said. The plane then veered northwest, out of town, escorted by the interceptors, security helicopters and a U.S. customs jet.
The aircraft, an old-fashioned white Cessna 150 that weighs about 1,000 pounds and has a top speed of 160 mph, was directed to the Frederick airport, where the men were detained for questioning.
In Pennsylvania, relatives and neighbors expressed shock that Martin and Sheaffer had wound up in so much trouble while on a flight to an air show in Lumberton, N.C. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating what took place and could order sanctions.
Martin, who neighbors said was learning to fly, was at the controls, according to investigators. He had less than 30 hours of flying instruction, officials said.
Sheaffer, who according to his sister is a seasoned pilot, was in the passenger seat. He has been flying since his late twenties, said his sister, Jan Gall.
Authorities said the men probably erred because they were using old maps that did not show the latest restricted airspace around Washington, including new limits set after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"They were lost and had no idea where the hell they were," said one federal law enforcement official. "They were confused and scared."
But Phil Boyer, of the Frederick-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association -- of which, Boyer said, Martin is a member -- said there "was no excuse" for the mistake.
"We send hundreds of e-mails and messages a year giving pilots instructions on how to fly here," said Boyer, who is president of the 400,000-member pilot education and lobbying group. The likely penalty for a pilot who strays into restricted airspace is license suspension for 30 to 120 days, though in this case, he predicted, it would be "likely more."
For the most part, federal officials said the response was appropriate. But D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) was upset that he was not notified until the incident was almost over. He said that city officials need to be immediately told of such intrusions.
The men departed at 10:58 a.m. from the small airport at Smoketown, about 12 miles from their homes in the middle of Lancaster County farm country.
Twenty-five minutes later, an FAA air traffic controller monitoring airspace around Baltimore noticed a small aircraft 45 miles north of the Capitol heading for Washington's restricted airspace. The pilot was not in contact with controllers as required for private fliers. FAA controllers immediately alerted agencies on the Domestic Events Network, a special communications system used to notify all agencies that protect the capital's airspace.
At 11:28 a.m., trackers spotted the plane entering the Air Defense Identification Zone, the 2,000-square-mile area around Washington that requires private planes to remain in radio contact with controllers. The plane entered the zone from an area 30 miles north of Reagan National Airport, but its radio was not tuned to the right frequency.
Shortly after 11:30, the Cessna turned east toward Baltimore, then moments later turned south. At 11:47, the Customs and Border Protection agency scrambled a Black Hawk helicopter and Citation jet from Reagan National Airport to intercept the plane. Authorities said the Black Hawk reached the Cessna first, at 11:56, followed by the Citation minutes later. Neither could get the Cessna's attention.
As the Cessna closed in, flying at 2,500 feet, alert levels started to jump across the city. At 12:03 p.m., the White House went to code red, with the aircraft within three miles.
The customs aircraft, meanwhile, had been urgently trying to get the Cessna's attention. The crews of one or both aircraft held up a sign in their cockpits bearing the radio frequency the Cessna should tune to, officials said. Those on the small plane apparently saw the sign, made radio contact, but refused at first to turn back, officials said.
"No," the federal pilots ordered, "this is federal law enforcement. You will land that aircraft." Finally, at 12:06 p.m., flying over Northwest Washington, the Air Force fighters arrived, fired warning flares, and the Cessna fliers realized that they were in trouble.
Five minutes later, the White House alert dropped to yellow, and a 12:14 p.m. the "all-clear" was issued there. The Cessna landed at the Frederick airport at 12:37 p.m.