On June 9, Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher was inbound to the Washington, D.C. area aboard a state-owned King Air to attend the funeral ceremony for President Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, the transponder on the airplane was not working. When the aircraft reached the D.C. flight restricted zone, an area that extends some 16 miles around the Capitol, it was misidentified as a potential terrorist threat, leading to the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol. Interceptor aircraft were alerted and airborne and came within a minute or two of shooting down the “intruder.”
Apparently a technical gap between the FAA’s Potomac Tracon and the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) air defense command center inflamed the problem. The FAA has since stated that all aircraft approaching Washington must have a functioning transponder; that a new radar feed to the command center would effectively reduce the possibility of a similar misunderstanding in the future; and that controllers were to be retrained.
This fiasco caught the attention of House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee on aviation chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who convened a committee hearing on the subject early last month. Mica said that unless the problems of communication, a determination as to who is in charge and the right technology were resolved, an accidental shootdown is a distinct possibility. Mica said the FAA has identified fewer than half of the 2,400 flights that have breached Washington’s airspace since January last year.
“I have to ask,” said Mica, “what benefit the ADIZ provides to aviation security.”
TSA COO Jonathan Fleming said the TSA was unaware of flights into the flight restricted zone that were not identified. TSA officials claimed to have investigated more than 2,000 aircraft, but that none has been linked to terrorism.
The subcommittee also used this venue to reiterate its position regarding the opening of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) to general aviation aircraft. Mica released data that showed that special waivers for landings and takeoffs from DCA have been granted to aircraft carrying 79 elected officials, including members of Congress and governors. The most frequent user (46 flights) was Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who lives in Richmond but has a home in Alexandria, Va., a Washington suburb.
“VIPs, members of Congress and other elected officials continue to receive special treatment under this process,” said Mica in calling for an end to special waivers. “If the private sector is going to suffer, so should everyone else. There is no good reason that protective security measures, adopted by the TSA and approved by the [National Security Agency] and other agencies, cannot be put in place to reopen DCA to most of general aviation. I believe that with proper procedures, training, communication and coordination we can outsmart the terrorists and restore jobs, economic activity and general aviation both in our capital’s airport and across the nation.”
Tom Ridge, Secretary of Homeland Security, has indicated that his department is reviewing a TSA plan to allow general aviation aircraft use of DCA. However, Ridge said a decision, after consultation with the White House, national security offices and the Department of Transportation, is not expected until after the November elections. In view of this foot dragging, which observers expect to continue as consultation with the many government agencies involved takes place, reopening of DCA in November would come as a surprise indeed.