The June 9 snafu involving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that resulted in a needless evacuation of the Capitol was just another visit from an existing, known problem ["Capitol Plane Scare Blamed on Lack of Communication; TSA Findings Echo Those of 9/11 Commission," front page, June 19].
I operate a small fleet of Cessna aircraft that carry traffic reporters for local radio stations. Just about a year ago on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 10, 2003, one of my planes was headed west over Interstate 66 in Manassas. The aircraft was operating under a TSA-issued waiver, and it was in radio contact with controllers at Dulles Airport and at a nearby approach-control facility in whose airspace it was operating. In short, it was exactly where it was supposed to be, and it was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing.
However, some unnamed security official decided that my airplane was a threat and dispatched a military jet from Andrews Air Force Base to intercept it.
Air traffic controllers whose airspace the military plane passed through were told that the jet was coming, but that was all. Nobody had any idea whom or what the military jet was looking for, and its pilot either did not have the capability or chose not to communicate directly with the controllers. Thus, the jet was inside a heavily congested airspace traveling at speeds of as much as 560 knots with controllers and other aircraft relegated to the status of spectators.
It was only when this jet started circling our aircraft that we figured out that he was looking for us. The jet circled us for several minutes until the controller was able to get through to someone to call him off. All this over a target moving away from the city on a route flown four or five times a day by the same airplane.
This situation was somewhat worse than the similar case this month because it disrupted airline traffic at two airports and because of the hazards associated with a cat-and-mouse game that took place at a relatively low altitude directly over a congested interstate highway. But the core issues are exactly the same -- lack of coordination, common sense and accountability.
In both cases, the aircraft in question were operating in an air traffic control environment and in clearly defined airspace. A person with even the most limited understanding of the area would have been able to discern what control tower or approach controller was responsible for the airspace in which the plane was located. A reasonable reaction would have included a phone call to that facility or controller to inquire about the status of the aircraft in question. In both cases, that would have been the end of the issue.
However, both times the security people involved either were not smart enough or chose not to make that phone call. Instead, intercepts were initiated at great expense. At least in our case, that intercept caused huge disruptions and safety problems.
I did my best to get to the root of the problem so that at least I would have some assurance that it wouldn't happen again. I got nowhere. From the outset, it seemed clear that the FAA didn't have a lot to do with what happened and that the decisions that went wrong were made on the security side.
I had been given a local number to call. I then was referred to a military installation that turned out to be in Florida. From there I was handed off to someone else. A number of the folks to whom I spoke promised to have someone call back to help sort things out, but that never happened. In the end, I was never able to pin down just who was responsible or even where that person might have been located at the time of the incident. What was doubly frustrating was the number of military officials to whom I spoke along the way who didn't see a problem with any of this.
We are now hearing that the air traffic controller involved in the June 9 incident was dismissed, which I also find troubling. Are we to understand that it is the controller's fault that the security people didn't bother to pick up the phone and ask someone about this plane -- just as they didn't bother to do a year before on June 10, 2003? What's wrong with this picture?
The air traffic control system was never intended as a security device; it's there to help airplanes get from one place to the next without bumping into one another in the air or on the ground. My experience in almost a quarter-century of flying has been that it does a good job. The controllers in our area, whose jobs have gotten incredibly more complex since Sept. 11, 2001, are doing a terrific job under difficult circumstances. My operation also deals on a daily basis with a variety of aviation security folks, and they generally seem to be on top of things and eager to make things work.
But, clearly, somewhere, there's a disconnect that can lead to spectacular failures. Procedures need to be cleaned up, the lines of communication clearly established, and some accountability and common sense put in place.
Above all, the higher-ups at TSA and in the military have to understand that they've got to change the way they do business. Otherwise, it's only a matter of time before someone gets injured or killed as a result of one of these foul-ups.
-- Stan Fetter
manages Hyde Field in Clinton.