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Running to Evacuate In D.C. Plane In Airspace
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Senate workers evacuated their office building as word spread of the errant plane
May 11, 2005
Plane Prompts Brief Evacuation of White House and Capitol
By DAVID STOUT
WASHINGTON, May 11 - A small plane flew into restricted airspace over the nation's capital today, causing a scare that prompted evacuation of the Capitol building, the White House, the Supreme Court and other government sites.
The midday episode lasted barely a quarter-hour, and the errant pilot was quickly shooed away by two F-16 jet fighters that scrambled from nearby Andrews Air Force Base after the small plane was detected shortly before noon. But for those brief minutes there was a palpable sense of fear here as people recalled the terror of the day in 2001 when a hijacked airliner flew into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.
The single-engine Cessna that set off today's widespread alarm was first detected 15 miles away, just on the edge of the restricted airspace, as it headed toward the Capitol and the White House, the chief White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said at a briefing soon after the incident.
Mr. McClellan said the pilot did not respond to repeated attempts to communicate with him. The craft, tracked by jet fighters, ultimately came within three miles of the White House before veering west and away from the restricted area, Mr. McClellan said.
President Bush was bicycling in Maryland at the time. But Vice President Dick Cheney, who was at the White House, was quickly escorted to a "secure location," as were First Lady Laura Bush and Nancy Reagan, who was visiting, Mr. McClellan said.
Several Congressional hearings were suspended as people streamed out of the Capitol Building, with Congressional leaders being hustled into armored vehicles. Scores of people were simultaneously evacuated at the White House, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, under clear blue skies as the Secret Service briefly went on its highest-alert status. (The Pentagon, across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va., was not evacuated.)
After veering away from the White House, the Cessna was escorted by military aircraft to an airport in nearby Frederick, Md., where it put down. Two men were taken into custody at the airport, the Capitol police chief, Terry Gainer, said at a news briefing. Chief Gainer said preliminary information indicated that the men had taken the plane without permission from an airport in Lancaster County, Pa. But that was contradicted by comments to reporters made by people in Pennsylvania who said they knew the pilots.
An online database of the Federal Aviation Administration lists the plane bearing the registration number of the aircraft shown on television as a Cessna 150 registered to the Vintage Aero Club in Smoketown, in southeastern Pennsylvania. That model aircraft typically carries only one or two people, including the pilot.
The Associated Press described the club as a group of people who fly from the Smoketown Airport, in Lancaster County. The news agency reported that a former club member, John E. Henderson, had said that the plane was to be flown to a North Carolina airshow by Jim Sheaffer of Lititz, Pa., and a student pilot, Troy Martin of Akron, Pa.
Mr. Martin's wife, Jill, said the two men left late this morning for Lumberton, The A.P. said.
"Troy was discussing with me last night after they made their flight plans all about the no-fly zones and how they were going to avoid them," she said in an interview with the news agency. "He said they were going to fly between two different restricted areas."
As the plane sat on a runway in Frederick, it was dwarfed by a military helicopter that landed a short distance away from it. Later, television pictures showed the Cessna being towed away and a man in shorts being led to a police cruiser in handcuffs.
Secret Service officials and other law enforcement officers were questioning the pilot, who had not yet been identified and whose motives were not immediately known, Mr. McClellan said.
One tantalizing question is how close the Cessna may have come to being shot down. Mr. McClellan said there were "protocols in place" to fire at it, if necessary, "but I'm not sure it ever came to that point." Asked who had the authority to order that the plane be shot down, Mr. McClellan declined to be specific, except to say that President Bush was aware of the episode as it unfolded.
Pilots accidentally enter restricted airspace over Washington from time to time, generally without this level of response. But since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the prospect of an errant plane being shot down is not far-fetched. If, as Mr. McClellan said, the Cessna was within three miles of the White House today, it could easily have been within a minute or so's flying time of the mansion.
Today's incident, unsettling as it was, lasted just 15 minutes - from 11:59 a
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