Authorities evacuated the U.S. Capitol on June 9 because of a communication failure between Federal Aviation Administration flight controllers and Washington air defense officials tracking a plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) to Ronald Reagan's funeral, a government review has concluded.
Officials from the Defense and Homeland Security departments ordered two F-15 fighter jets and a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to intercept Fletcher's aircraft at 4:25 p.m. without knowing that FAA controllers had been in radio contact with the plane for at least 40 minutes and had determined it was not hostile, according to interviews and a preliminary report by the Transportation Security Administration that was obtained by The Washington Post.
The Kentucky State Police aircraft, whose identification transmitter was broken, had properly notified civilian flight controllers of its status throughout its flight. But the FAA's regional control center never relayed the information to a Washington air defense center in Herndon -- formally known as the National Capital Region Coordination Center (NCRCC) -- until after U.S. Capitol Police made the emergency decision at 4:31 p.m. to evacuate the Capitol, according to the "after-action" report.
The order sent hundreds of assembled dignitaries and lawmakers and thousands of staff members running from the Capitol in a frantic exodus.
The review was disclosed one day after the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks recounted similar communication breakdowns between FAA and military officials on the day of the terrorist attacks. The head of U.S. air defenses testified Thursday that fighter jets could have intercepted all four hijacked airliners before they struck their targets if the FAA had notified them quickly.
FAA officials held a news conference yesterday to highlight the improvements made to the nation's air security in the past 33 months, but last week's incident provided some evidence that problems remain.
The Kentucky aircraft "should not have been permitted to enter [Washington airspace] without advance coordination with the NCRCC," the TSA report said. The report added that a regional FAA air controller "did not notify the NCRCC that the [target] was identified."
Two government officials said the controller has been dismissed. FAA spokesman Greg Martin said the agency would not comment on personnel matters.
Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Jim Turner (D-Tex.), the ranking minority member, called for an investigation into what they said appeared to be "miscommunication and technological shortcomings" during the Kentucky flight.
The episode "raises serious concerns about the government's ability to guard not only the U.S. Capitol but the entire region in the event of another airborne attack," Turner said in a statement yesterday. Cox said that "we want to protect the capital region and to make sure the procedures in place work to do that."
Washington and New York remain the U.S. cities most likely to be attacked by terrorists, government officials say. Intelligence officials say al Qaeda continues to plot strikes on this country involving hijacked jets used as missiles.
TSA spokesman Mark O. Hatfield Jr. said a thorough review is underway. The FAA and the U.S. Capitol Police Board have also launched internal investigations as participants in TSA's Herndon joint air control center, which includes the Pentagon, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Martin acknowledged "communication and coordination" problems, saying, "The FAA tracked and was in close communication with the Kentucky State Police aircraft during its entire flight to Washington, D.C., and was fully aware of the aircraft's transponder failure."
According to the TSA report, the Kentucky plane was authorized to enter restricted Washington airspace and its pilot properly telephoned air defense controllers the morning of its estimated 3 p.m. takeoff and planned 4 p.m. arrival.
At 3:45 p.m., at least 25 minutes after takeoff, the pilot notified the FAA's Washington Center that his identification transponder was not working properly. FAA regional controllers then manually entered the aircraft's flight identification number and type on an electronic "data tag" visible on FAA computer displays, FAA officials said.
But the information was not given to the Herndon defense center, whose Internet-based air control display showed only an unidentified target approaching the center of the city, officials said. When the aircraft entered the D.C. Air Defense Identification Zone about 50 miles west of Washington at 4:24 p.m., traveling at 240 mph, air defense officials ordered the fighter jets and helicopter to intercept it one minute later.
FAA ground controllers realized their error at 4:34 p.m., three minutes after the Capitol evacuation was ordered, with the aircraft about 11 miles, or three minutes, away. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement helicopter and a Cessna Citation lifted off as the Kentucky plane was on final approach to Reagan National Airport.
The communications glitch lasted five to seven minutes but occurred at the worst possible time, with Homeland Security forces at high alert and numerous aircraft aloft in the region, Martin said. A military spokesman and U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said, however, that the interception of the airplane and the evacuation of the Capitol were conducted effectively and appropriately.
But Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William H. Pickle noted: "Anytime you move thousands of people from a place, there's a potential for harm. There's also a potential for harm for the people inside the aircraft if the military had had to intervene in some capacity."
Fletcher's chief of staff, Daniel Groves, said last night that no one aboard the governor's twin-engine propeller-driven Beech Kingair 200 saw anything amiss or heard from air controllers that there was a problem.
"All indications are that our pilots did nothing wrong. They were following the exact directions given by air traffic controllers," Groves said.
The FAA yesterday issued a notice to aviators reiterating that aircraft must have an operating transponder before entering restricted Washington airspace. The agency will also install direct radar feeds from the regional FAA traffic control station to the Herndon center "within the next few weeks" so that both civilian and security air controllers have identical display information.
At yesterday's news conference, held to respond to the Sept. 11 commission report, FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey and aides said the agency has integrated its long-range radar into the radar system used by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, whose jets are responsible for defending the continental United States and Canada. NORAD now has the ability to view air traffic across the continental United States, they said.
Staff writer Griff Witte contributed to this report.