Military Was Set to Down Cessna

Pilot Hayden
Pilot Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer told NBC that he thought the plane was going to be shot down after he saw warning flares outside the window. (Nbc)
By Spencer S. Hsu and John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave military officials the authority to shoot down, if necessary, a small plane that wandered into restricted airspace over the nation's capital May 11, according to two senior federal officials.

For 11 intense minutes, customs aircraft and military fighter jets tried to intercept the Cessna 150 and determine whether the pilots were confused and lost or were targeting Washington. Military officials never deemed the aircraft to be hostile, but White House and U.S. Capitol officials grew more concerned as it flew within three miles of the executive mansion.

The plane, one of the federal officials said, came within "15 to 20 seconds" of being downed before its pilots finally heeded repeated orders to turn away from the city.

The new details, also corroborated yesterday by a senior federal law enforcement official briefed on events, came as U.S. military and homeland security officials review the effectiveness of an air defense system established for the Washington area after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because much of the air defense system is classified.

As authorities piece together the lessons of the scare -- described by some officials as the closest the government has come to downing a civilian plane over Washington since Sept. 11, 2001 -- they are confronting sensitive issues involving split-second decisions, communications and the federal chain of command.

Against a light aircraft moving at a relatively slow 100 mph, with two evidently confused pilots, authorities were able to order the evacuation of the White House and Capitol complex only two to three minutes before the plane would have reached either. Outside analysts said it remains unknown what might happen against a larger, faster aircraft intending to evade defenders.

"The question is, if it were a faster plane . . . whether or not the system would have been as responsive," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.

Based on a Homeland Security Department chronology, it is unclear whether jet fighters would have been in position to take action against the Cessna before it reached the White House or Capitol. The Cessna penetrated a 16-mile-radius no-fly zone at 11:50 a.m.; F-16 fighters were scrambled from nearby Andrews Air Force Base two minutes later.

The White House and Capitol were evacuated just after noon, as the plane continued to approach. The fighters fired warning flares at the Cessna at 12:04 p.m., and it was diverted.

Pentagon and Homeland Security officials have said the air defense system worked effectively during the crisis. But in a statement released Friday, the pilots said they had trouble communicating on the radio frequency that a customs helicopter crew signaled for them to use.

Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and Customs and Border Protection confirmed the communications problems cited by the Cessna pilots, Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer, 69, and Troy Martin, 36, both of Pennsylvania. The frequency was unavailable in that patch of airspace, the officials said.

Customs spokesman Gary Bracken said an unidentified plane on the ground had activated an emergency locator beacon that uses the same frequency, interfering with radio communications. Sheaffer eventually was able to communicate.

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