General aviation’s quest to return to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) sustained a blow last month when two Pennsylvania pilots caused another panicked evacuation of the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court. Their Cessna 150 flew to within three miles of the White House.
President Bush was bicycling at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge about 20 miles northeast of the White House and learned of the incident later. Vice President Dick Cheney was hustled out of his office and sped away in an escorted limousine. First lady Laura Bush and the visiting former first lady Nancy Reagan were taken to a secure bunker beneath the White House complex. Officials said that about 35,000 people were evacuated from the U.S. Capitol building and nearby office buildings on Capitol Hill.
The Cessna 150 had taken off on May 11 from Smoketown Airport near Lancaster, Pa., bound for a fly-in in Lumberton, N.C. The airplane reportedly flew into the Washington air defense identification zone (ADIZ), turned and left the airspace and then returned, flying toward the White House at about 2,500 feet.
At 11:47 a.m. Customs and Border Protection launched a Black Hawk from Reagan Washington National, followed by the agency’s Cessna Citation. Neither was able to attract the attention of the Cessna 150 pilots.
At 12:03 p.m., with the aircraft within three miles, the White House went to code red. At the same time, alarms and flashing lights went off in congressional office buildings on Capitol Hill. Security officers ordered staffers and visitors to evacuate the buildings as quickly as possible. By then, the Air Force had scrambled two F-16s from Andrews AFB; at 12:04 p.m. they dropped four warning flares in an attempt to divert the 150.
One minute later the pilots flew over the Vice President’s residence. The F-16s and the Citation escorted the errant Cessna to Frederick Municipal Airport, 35 nm northwest of Washington.
The pilots exited the aircraft at gunpoint before being handcuffed and detained for questioning by the Secret Service. No criminal charges were filed. Both reportedly cooperated with authorities.
This was the second evacuation of the U.S. Capitol in less than a year. On June 9 last year, a Beech King Air A100 operated by the Kentucky State Police caused a frantic emptying of Capitol Hill offices and the Supreme Court and dispersal of mourners waiting to pay their respects to former President Ronald Reagan, whose casket was en route to the Capitol Rotunda.
The King Air, which had been issued a waiver to land at DCA, caused F-15s and Black Hawks to be vectored into the area because its transponder was not functioning and some radars showed it entering Washington’s restricted areas as an “unidentified” aircraft.
A New Roadblock to Reclaiming DCA
Before the May 11 incident, general aviation had been making some political inroads into restoring some access to DCA. But the latest airspace violation might change that. In fact, after the incident The Washington Post ran a front-page article with the headline “Ban on Small Aircraft at National Likely to Remain.”
The article quoted an anonymous administration official as saying these airspace violations “should give pause to the whole question of reopening National Airport to small planes.” According to the newspaper, Bush Administration officials were that week close to approving a security plan that would have lifted the ban.
Lawmakers who support returning general aviation to DCA, including Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said they would continue their efforts. Early last month, Rogers’ panel approved legislation that includes language ordering the Department of Homeland Security to return nonscheduled charter and general aviation operations to DCA within 90 days of the bill’s passage.
Inclusion of the provision makes the Committee on Appropriations the third House committee to approve legislation mandating general aviation’s return to Reagan Washington National Airport. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Homeland Security Committee have approved similar language. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) have also introduced legislation regarding reopening DCA to charter and general aviation.
The Post reported that at the time of the Cessna’s intrusion, Mica was telling Davis that the Bush Administration had indicated that a deal on DCA was near. “Within two minutes of saying that…we were all being ushered out the door,” said Mica.