View Full Version : Plane That Caused Capitol Evacuation Nearly Shot Down

8th Jul 2004, 04:03
Plane That Caused Capitol Evacuation Nearly Shot Down

By Spencer S. Hsu

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2004; Page A01

The top general at the North American Aerospace Defense Command was on the telephone and prepared to order an F-16 fighter to shoot down an unidentified plane that turned out to be carrying the governor of Kentucky to President Ronald Reagan's funeral last month, according to two federal security officials briefed separately about the incident.

The tense incident June 9 ended after the twin-engine Beechcraft King Air carrying Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) turned to land at Reagan National Airport. But the close call caused officials to reassess safeguards for the airspace around Washington and prompted calls to expand the no-fly zone beyond its current 16-mile radius.

Although many planes have violated restrictions imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the June 9 episode was extraordinary because the aircraft penetrated so deeply into the no-fly zone during a high-security event and remained unidentified to air defense officials for several critical minutes. Current and former homeland security officials said the incident was a significant security breakdown.

The episode, described by some officials as the closest the government has come to downing a civilian plane over Washington since Sept. 11, 2001, will be the subject of two hearings on Capitol Hill today. Civil aviation officials will testify before a House subcommittee on aviation, and military officials have been invited to a classified briefing before the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.

"Even without the communications breakdowns involved in Governor Fletcher's flight, serious questions remain about the adequacy of our air defense system," said Rep. Jim Turner (D-Tex.), ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. "Does the existing no-fly zone around our nation's capital give sufficient time to intercept a terrorist controlled flight?"

A spokesman for the commander of NORAD, U.S. Air Force Gen. Ralph E. "Ed" Eberhart, would not comment on the handling of the incident, saying that rules of engagement are classified. But he and others pointed out that protocols were followed and that the air defense system as a whole is providing unprecedented security.

"The fact that the plane landed without incident June 9 indicates that interagency coordination procedures developed since 9/11 work," said the spokesman, Michael Kucharek.

A reconstruction, based in part on interviews with officials who spoke on condition they not be named, has revealed new details. Senior officials at two federal agencies who are familiar with how the air defense system worked that day said a fighter plane sent to intercept Fletcher's plane initially could not make visual contact because of cloud cover.

As a result, Eberhart did not issue the order to shoot down Fletcher's plane, according to the two officials, as well as a third government official who was briefed later on the incident. Interviews and a timeline prepared by congressional investigators also show that Fletcher's plane turned to land before it was identified.

"They had the general on the phone, and he was in position to make the call. . . . This was the closest we have come to making that difficult decision, triggering a chain of events that could be pretty horrific," one official said.

The air defense system for Washington is unique, and many of its operations are classified. Unveiled in January 2003, the system was created to track all flights and to intercept aircraft that do not follow strict protocols. It replaced the fighter patrols that guarded the nation's capital beginning Sept. 11, 2001, a defense that was costly and did not provide federal authorities with the tools to investigate whether there were patterns in the violations.

The defense system includes a no-fly zone that bars most air traffic from a ring that extends 16 miles from the Washington Monument -- the major exception being commercial flights to and from National Airport. A larger restricted zone, the D.C. Air Defense Identification Zone, extends to about 50 miles from Washington and requires pilots to identify their aircraft, activate identification beacons and stay in two-way radio contact with air controllers.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement helicopters and Cessna jets patrol the zone unarmed, while air defense artillery on the ground and fighter jets on alert or on irregular air patrols are poised to intercept an intruder.

On June 9, the Beechcraft King Air was flying with a broken transponder, a device that transmits an identifying signal picked up by ground controllers. After takeoff, the pilot, as required, notified Federal Aviation Administration officials in Ohio about the problem at 2:56 p.m.

But the FAA failed to notify military and homeland security officials, who monitored separate radar displays, about the broken transponder. To everyone but the FAA, radars showed an unidentified intruder entering restricted Washington airspace at 4:24 p.m.

At 4:31 p.m., with the plane a minute or two from downtown Washington, officials ordered the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol, where thousands had gathered to await the arrival of Reagan's coffin. The FAA reported to air defense authorities that it was in contact with the plane three minutes later, as the aircraft made the final approach to National Airport.

The Beechcraft was traveling at roughly 240 miles per hour, or four miles a minute. At that speed, it could have reached the center of the no-fly zone in four minutes.

Customs officials said it took their Black Hawk helicopter four minutes to launch that afternoon, quicker than the designated scramble time. Military fighters happened to be on intermittent air patrols that day, but their standard scramble time from the ground is 15 minutes.

For security officials, a key factor is how little time they had to identify Fletcher's aircraft and make critical decisions. One senior federal security official who has studied the incident said the chances of shooting down the plane would have been "50-50" given the time sequence.

The official said the current system is prepared to stop a second assault, as was the case Sept. 11, not a first attack. Expanding the restricted flight zone -- or a more radical move, such as closing National Airport -- would be required to provide a greater level of security, he said.

Some House investigators are pushing the Transportation Security Administration to improve coordination between a half-dozen agencies. Officials at the TSA and the Pentagon have revived calls for the FAA to expand the restricted flight zones, which would build in more time to make and execute decisions.

Close calls in the past have prompted changes. On June 19, 2002, a Cessna flew over the capital area before it could be intercepted, prompting the evacuation of Vice President Cheney from the White House. Military officials at the time acknowledged that aircraft could reach targets in Washington before they were intercepted by fighters on ground alert.

Authority for air patrols to shoot down a civilian aircraft, once limited to the president, has been delegated to the secretary of defense and his deputy; to Eberhart, as NORAD commander; and to the commander of NORAD's continental U.S. region in Florida, Air Force Maj. Gen. Craig R. McKinley. McKinley has said shoot-down orders are practiced "probably eight to 15 times a week."

A senior federal security official said the process involved in firing ground-based air defenses operated by the Army or Army National Guard is more complex and needs refinement. Some military officials initially questioned the value of installing short-range missile systems, saying the range and reaction time made their use unlikely.

Customs agents with submachine guns are trained to shoot from the Black Hawks and have authority to use lethal force if their lives or the lives of others are endangered, said Charles E. Stallworth II, director of air and marine operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Homeland security officials, although aware of limitations, say the system in place is working well and has added layers of protection unavailable on Sept. 11, 2001.

Randy Beardsworth, head of the Department of Homeland Security directorate that includes the TSA and customs enforcement, said advanced radar, computer databases and other tools used by the multi-agency system provide an unprecedented early warning system.

More than 2,000 aircraft "of interest" have been detected over Washington airspace since January 2003, Beardsworth said. The number of aircraft violating the no-fly zone fell from 164 in the six months before Jan. 20, 2003, to 30 after that date through May, 14, 2004.

All 30 intruders were successfully identified, Beardsworth said. By comparison, another federal official said that two years ago, military jets could identify and intercept only about 40 percent of intruders in training drills.

Beardsworth, however, said he does not disagree with those who say the system may not be geared to stop a determined attacker. Like other security officials, he noted that the system's limits are forced by political compromises between security and civilian aviation interests.

Beardsworth said that shooting down hostile aircraft is the responsibility of the Defense Department, not his agency.

"Our role is to help them by having a clear picture when they have to make that tough decision," he said. "Can you imagine how much tougher the decision would be if you didn't have the ability to deter small craft from coming in, if you didn't have the ability to fly out there, detect, identify and deter?"


Captain Mercurius
8th Jul 2004, 09:20
Good One Airbubba,

This is one of the thousands events to show the Dementia state who is going on.
This article states clearly that the aircraft carrying Governor Ernie Fletcher had “SPECIAL APPROVED AUTHORIZATION “to land in Washington.
More, the PILOTS DID NOT DEVIATE AN INCH from the Flight Plan.
Ultimately, the pilots kept a CONSTANT communication with ATC.
The madness went in a such extent that police did evacuate the capitol telling woman to take out their shoes and run for shelter!

Here is the article below:
I will post some more articles about this specific event later.


At DC, "Incoming Plane!" ... "You Have One Minute To Impact."

By Glenn Pew
Newswriter, Editor
Evacuations As Some Prepare To Pay Their Respects To Ronald Reagan
Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher's King Air 200 yesterday caused panic in Washington D.C. just hours before the expected arrival of the casket bearing former president Ronald Reagan. The aircraft was cleared to land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) inside the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ) but while radio communications were never lost, something about the plane's transponder signal was -- 13 miles southwest of DCA, Greg Martin, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, told reporters. The "equipment problem," as Fletcher's chief of staff Daniel Groves called it, aroused officers in the government's most prominent buildings to shout memorable phrases like, "To the basement, to the basement." Deborah Norville, in telephoned comments heard on the evening news, said police entered the Capitol building and told everyone to evacuate immediately ... that to move faster women should take their shoes off and run. Again, at the time AVweb went to press, sources indicated the aircraft never lost radio contact with controllers. Regardless, two F-15 fighters were diverted from an air patrol for the intercept. Outside the buildings, as throngs of spectators gathered for the arrival of former president Ronald Reagan's casket, the commands from uniformed officers sparked fear and a near-panic atmosphere, all caught on video. Before the all-clear was given, several Supreme Court justices had been escorted away and a motorcade had whisked off with the second in line for the presidency (aka House Speaker Dennis Hastert).

8th Jul 2004, 09:31
Yet again too much faith in technology - in this case a simple u/s transponder caused pandemonium.

Couple that with institutional incompetence between the FAA and DoD and it's lucky that some gung-ho moron didn't launch a Patriot!

There must be a better way of doing business!

Send Clowns
8th Jul 2004, 11:18
Agree with BEagle. In the UK London (or Scottish) military and civilian controllers work together. Why can this not be arranged in Washington?

8th Jul 2004, 11:30
Can't argue with the above. Today, we don't know what would happen in the same situation. The congressional hearings later today will help, but it is a shame it takes that for what should be resolved with some common-sense management.

Captain Mercurius
8th Jul 2004, 12:46
Hi folks as promised.

It's One Of Ours

By Russ Niles
Newswriter, Editor
Security Mandarins Ponder DC Panic...
Pilot error has been ruled out and now the people who try to keep Washington, D.C., safe from terrorism will figure out among themselves what led them to scramble fighters and evacuate the Capitol last Wednesday for an airplane that never strayed an inch from its approved (and very well-documented) flight path. The King Air 200 carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (a former fighter pilot) had a waiver to take Fletcher into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport so the governor could attend a memorial for the airport's late namesake. But before it landed, its arrival caused panic perhaps an appropriate reaction to police officers at the Capitol building shouting, "one minute to impact." The pseudo drama began with a balky transponder that quit working shortly after the King Air left Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport early Wednesday afternoon. Following the regulations for such an occurrence, the pilots of the Kentucky State Police aircraft notified air traffic control and maintained contact throughout the flight. "They followed directions from air traffic controllers explicitly," said Doug Hogan, Fletcher's communication's director.

Iron City
8th Jul 2004, 13:02
Send Clowns identified the core of the problem perfectly....the people getting excited over the King Air with the inop transponder were Dept of Homeland Security (he gagged as he wrote it) not FAA and not DoD.

The controllers in the DC area are all FAA except for Andrews AFB, MCAF Quantico, and Davidson AAF (Ft. Belvoir) and the military tower and approach facilities work well with Potomac TRACON and ZDC. The people getting excited are cops and politicians who do not know much of anything about aviation and do not care to learn, it appears.

8th Jul 2004, 14:53
Except that the parrot's demise came close to taking the guv'ner with him:uhoh:

8th Jul 2004, 15:47
it's lucky that some gung-ho moron didn't launch a Patriot!RTFA.

There are no Patriots stationed around the capitol, only Stingers. And as the article states: the process involved in firing ground-based air defenses operated by the Army or Army National Guard is more complex and needs refinement

8th Jul 2004, 16:24
And if the aircraft had been shot down, it would have been classified as human error. But, quoting from several good references “Human error is a symptom of trouble deeper inside a system”

9th Jul 2004, 03:29
Posted on Thu, Jul. 08, 2004

Kentucky governor says plane was `milliseconds from being shot down'


Knight Ridder Newspapers

FRANKFORT, Ky. - (KRT) - It wasn't until the day after his plane caused a panic in the nation's capital and was almost shot down by an F-16 [or F-15, all the same to the media] fighter that Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher learned how close he had come to getting killed.

"Originally I was told that we were only, quote, milliseconds from being shot down. That was the second day of the investigation," Fletcher said Thursday. Later, he said, he talked to an Air Force general who "assured me it was a little more than milliseconds, but it was close."

Just how close it was became more clear this week as congressional hearings began in Washington. Congress is looking into security concerns that arose after the Federal Aviation Administration failed to make national defense officials aware of the state-owned plane Fletcher was using. On the plane, a piece of equipment known as a transponder, which would have signaled its identity, had stopped working shortly after takeoff.

News reports this week quoted anonymous officials who described the June 9 episode as the closest the government has come to shooting down a civilian plane in the restricted airspace over Washington since Sept. 11, 2001.

"We don't believe it can happen again," Linda Schuessler, vice president for system operations at the FAA, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation Thursday.

On June 9, the U.S. Capitol, where former President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to lie in state, was evacuated as a result of the incident involving Fletcher.

But aboard the 33-year-old Beechcraft King Air turboprop, Fletcher, who was doing paperwork while traveling to Reagan's funeral, was unaware of the panic below.

After he reached his hotel, "I literally saw it on CNN," the governor said Thursday during an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader. "As soon as they showed it, I knew that's got to be me because we didn't have a transponder."

The next day, Fletcher said, he was chagrined to learn from U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that the scare had even forced the evacuation of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"I thought, Lord, one of my conservative idols," said Fletcher, a Republican.

...The Kentucky State Police pilot told him shortly after the plane left Cincinnati that the transponder was not working, said Fletcher, himself a former Air Force fighter pilot.

He said he thought the equipment failure would not be serious, since air traffic controllers at Reagan National Airport in Washington could keep track of the plane on radar.

Likewise, when officials later asked that the plane go to Dulles International Airport, about 25 miles west of the nation's capital, instead of the far closer Reagan airport, Fletcher asked for special permission to stay on course, he said.

"We need to go there to make the ceremony," he explained. "They said they had us on radar and OK. There was continuous tracking. They cleared us to go on to Reagan."

In hindsight, Fletcher said, he was glad the plane landed on a cross runway at Reagan instead of a parallel runway, which would have forced it far deeper into the restricted airspace.

"If we had waited and took the normal parallel, there were surface-to-air missiles sitting right across the river that probably could have taken us out," he said. "I felt very thankful."...


Ignition Override
9th Jul 2004, 04:17
The plane involved easily could have had 194 passengers on board (!), assuming that other transponders could also cause such confusion.

One solution is already available. Washington DULLES Airport. Already in use for many years. The major problem seems to be convenience, and heavy highway traffic.

Shutdown DCA airport, which is in the heart of the capitol city! Only the politicians have kept it open, from what I've read. Maybe this latest near-tragedy will knock some sense into them. They might counter with, "Oh no-we've gone to so much trouble and expen$e developing these 'safety procedures'........":hmm:

Would an interceptor jet be authorized to first try to fly just ahead in loose formation, and signal with a slight wing rock that a turn is required? This might be quite classified. When a C-130's exhausted, sleeping crew (just a very, very long duty period: our airline managements would love it) was headed the wrong direction in Southeast Asia many years ago, the US F-4 Phantom pilot, authorized to shoot it down, flew alongside, saw everyone slumped on head rests and cleverly cycled his afterburners (reheat). After a few times, the booming sound woke up either a pilot or the FE, who quickly woke up the rest and they turned around. "Hey Lieutenant, you want lo mein or cashew chicken, and start with a spring roll?" The F-4 pilot got free drinks for a while.:uhoh:

9th Jul 2004, 06:55
No Patriots, just Stingers. Well that's OK then......:rolleyes:

Captain Mercurius
9th Jul 2004, 09:23
Hi Folks, one more article:

June 24, 2004

Formation Photo Shoot Panics Bostonians

By Russ Niles
Newswriter, Editor
In another time, Boston residents might have thrilled to the sight of Sean D. Tucker leading a formation of four aerobatic aircraft on a photo shoot overhead. But in the post-9/11 world, office workers stream outside not for a better view but because they think they might be under attack. Such was the case last Friday when the flight, all properly approved by the FAA, was launched to provide publicity photos for a local air show. At least 50 people fled the Prudential building's 23rd floor and about 100 gathered on the ground after the planes flew by. "Give me the name of the person who sanctioned this so I can become a crazy person and call them four times a day and demand an explanation," said one worker who asked that The Boston Globe not identify him. "We're all still on edge. We don't need this. Pilot Brian Norris, of Salinas, Calif., said he and the others were in constant contact with air traffic control. "We do this because we're aware of how sensitive things are since Sept. 11," Norris told the Globe. "But any time we do it, we know somebody's going to get a phone call." Local police stations got a rash of calls but because they hadn't been told about the flight in advance, couldn't reassure callers. Meanwhile, AOPA President Phil Boyer has called on the federal government to improve communications between air traffic control and security agencies. Last week, the FAA issued a NOTAM banning aircraft with non-functioning transponders from the Air Defense Identification Zone around Washington. The NOTAM came after a plane (with a malfunctioning transponder) carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher sparked a panicked evacuation of the Capitol building. Boyer says the NOTAM is another way to shift responsibility for the communications foul-up that caused the D.C. panic to GA.

So, I would like to place a question:
Is all of this a natural public reaction, or an induced collective schizophrenia?


cargo boy
9th Jul 2004, 10:57
Is all of this a natural public reaction, or an induced collective schizophrenia?More likely a natural public reaction induced by an ignorant media with nothing better to do than to create collective mass hysteria! :hmm:

9th Jul 2004, 11:56
dosn't it worry ya the thought of continuing a flight to the U.S with a knackered radio, squarking the correct squark and sticking to your flight plan ?

9th Jul 2004, 22:58
Captain Mercurious asked whether it was natural public reaction, or an induced collective schizophrenia.

I'm not sure I can tell the difference between the two in the present circumstances, CM. Maybe collective schizophrenia IS the natural public reaction. Washington and Boston would seem to bear that out.

Then cargo boy connects it to the media. In this particular instance, CB, I think I'd be rather reluctant to attribute blame there; it all happened before the media were aware of what was happening.

If any blame can be ladled out it should land on the shoulders of the federal agencies involved. In particular, that new body charged with (somewhat defensively named) homeland/border security (I can never remember the acronym, or perhaps I'm trying to put it out of my mind). For it is they who are now supposed to be responsible for boosting coordination between agencies. And when you think of coordination, you have to think of how the communication chain actually works and how normal people react.

I would have thought that by now, the US would have some form of nation-wide security radio station, filtering information and disseminating awareness.

War of the Worlds is a good reference. Shouldn't prevention of the mass panic Washington/Boston scenarios be put near the top of the homeland security issues to be resolved? One keeps seeing the director on television warning of attacks to come. Was it Grimm? The boy who cried Wolf...?

Ignition Override
10th Jul 2004, 01:53
Yes, and what realistic advantage is there if the Head of Homeland Security has his face on tv? If they boost the national threat level to pink, mauve, lime green, tangerine, orange, fuchsia or crimson, what are people to do-hide in a basement? The government is only concerned about its image here, a vague political liability, and doesn't care if it concerns its citizens unnecessarily. The Americans who, perhaps unwittingly, march to the Al Qaeda drum, are those thousands who say "oh, instead of Italy or Provence, we think we will just go to northern California this year...". Some of these guys who I know, flew supplies into Saigon (1970) or P-3s in the western Pacific many years ago. Now that is really hard to figure out.

The system in Washington DC, run by "THE EXPERTS", easily could have shot down a plane with 194 or more people on board, had it been an airliner. The actual plane was in contact with DCA Approach and Tower etc. Why not intercept it with two fighters, which is similar to what was done with an F-16 years ago to check over the doomed chartered Learjet (which had the crew oxygen shutoff valve only in the nose of the plane......), which carried Payne Stewart and others who had already died of hypoxia?

10th Jul 2004, 07:00
Unfortunately my War of the Worlds reference was snipped by the censor. Probably construed as being anti-American?

OK, I'll try again.

When 'War of the Worlds' was broadcast on US radio many years ago, mass hysteria resulted as many Americans really thought that the Martians had invaded.

So it's not entirely surprising that some people will believe anything that seems 'official' with out saying "Oh really? Are you absolutely certain?" - particularly in the current neo-paranoid mood in which Islamphobia has replaced "Reds under the bed" as the chief fear in the minds of many.

10th Jul 2004, 17:39
homeland/border security (I can never remember the acronym

DOHS, which is quite apt when spoken a la Homer Simpson :ouch:

Although to be fair, I don't think they had much to do* with this particular incident. The panic appears to have originated from the DC police, clearing the Capitol with cries of "One minute to impact !".

* which in itself gives pause for thought