Errant plane closes Capitol

When Portland State student Jessica Walker arrived at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., yesterday morning, it was another day of politics as usual.

An Honors College intern with the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Va., Walker was planning to spend her first visit to the United States Capitol at two briefings with senators, the second with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.

But just before a question and answer period with Wyden began, a shout came from a woman down the hall.

“Get out of the building!”

Then an alarm went off.

Guards carrying M16s flooded the building.

“There were guards yelling, ‘Run as fast as you can! Run for your life!” Walker said.

Mass pandemonium and confusion erupted in the Capitol. Some people fell down while running for the exits. Others began crying.

“We had absolutely no idea what was going on,” Walker said.

Unbeknown to Walker and other civilians on the ground, a small private plane had strayed into the restricted airspace over the Capitol, reaching within three miles of the White House.

The plane appeared to be “on a straight-in shot toward the center of the Washington area,” Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer told the Associated Press.

The incident turned out to be benign – a pilot and student pilot from Pennsylvania were en route to an air show in North Carolina, according to the Associated Press – but to security forces in Washington, D.C., it was no laughing matter.

The White House raised its threat level to red, the highest possible, for eight minutes, according to White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. Vice President Dick Cheney, Laura Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan were all taken to a secure location.

The Supreme Court and the Capitol were also evacuated as quickly as possible.

President George W. Bush was bicycling with a friend in Maryland and was not affected.

Back outside the Capitol, Walker and others were led to an area outside the Smithsonian Institution several blocks away. Most people, however, still had little understanding about what was happening.

“We heard Secret Service guys talking about a plane,” Walker said.

Soon, the crowd saw a fighter jet soar overhead; F-16s scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base to intercept the errant plane.

It was not until Walker returned to her supervisor’s apartment that she discovered that the incident had not been life threatening.

The plane’s pilot and student pilot were taken into custody after their flight sparked the frenzy of activity that tested the capitol’s post-Sept. 11 response system.

The government decided not to press charges after interviewing the men and determining the incident was an accident. “They were navigating by sight and were lost,” Justice Department spokesman Kevin Madden said.

At the Supreme Court, guards told some people to leave the building while others were shepherded into the underground parking garage, where Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer were seen chatting. At the Treasury, an announcement on the loudspeaker advised employees to move to a shelter.

The Defense and State departments were exceptions, with neither evacuated. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remained at the Pentagon, where many were killed when terrorists crashed an airliner on Sept. 11, 2001. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conducted a television interview unaware of the plane.

City government buildings also weren’t evacuated. Mayor Anthony Williams complained that city officials weren’t told about the threat until the all-clear was sounded.

“Critical and potentially life-or-death information about threats facing district residents needs to be shared immediately – not five, 10 or 15 minutes after the fact,” Williams said.

The incident began at 11:28 a.m., when Federal Aviation Administration radar picked up the aircraft, a small two-seater Cessna 152 with high wings. Gainer said the first alert went out when the plane was 21 miles – 17 minutes – from the city.

One Black Hawk helicopter and one Citation jet were dispatched at 11:47 a.m. from Reagan National Airport. Two F-16 jet fighters from Andrews Air Force Base fired four warning flares when the Cessna’s pilot did not respond to radio calls.

“If he wouldn’t have responded, intentionally or not, he could have been shot down,” said Master Sgt. John Tomassi of the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The plane then turned to the west and the warplanes escorted it to the airport in Frederick, Md., where the men aboard were taken into custody and questioned by Secret Service, FBI and local authorities.

The men were identified as Hayden Sheaffer, of Lititz, Pa., and Troy Martin, of Akron, Pa., according to a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The plane was registered to Vintage Aero Club, a group of people who fly from Smoketown Airport in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, said club member Merv King. Former club member John E. Henderson said the plane was to be flown by Sheaffer and Martin to an air show in Lumberton, N.C.

Sheaffer confirmed he had been released by authorities but declined to comment further when reached on his cell phone by The Associated Press.

Martin’s wife, Jill, 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. He said they were going to fly between two different restricted areas.”

Washington’s Reagan National Airport has been closed to general aviation, the non-airline planes, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the 3 1/2 years since then, hundreds of small planes have flown within the restricted airspace around the capital – a 15 3/4-mile radius around the Washington Monument.

However, it’s rare for fighter jets to be scrambled in response.

In the most dramatic previous incident, thousands of people fled the Capitol, packed with members of Congress and other dignitaries, when a plane flew into the restricted airspace just before the funeral procession for President Reagan last June.

A communications breakdown led federal officials to believe the plane might be targeting the Capitol, but it turned out to be carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who had been cleared to fly into the area.

[ed. note: Jessica Walker is married to Vanguard Chief Copy Editor Gregory Nipper. He was not involved in reporting for this story.]