View Full Version : Military Was Set To Down Cessna

05-25-2005, 07:26 AM
Military Was Set To Down Cessna
Authority Granted As Plane Strayed Deep Into Capital


By Spencer S. Hsu and John Mintz
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave military officials the authority to shoot down, if necessary, a small plane that wandered into restricted airspace over the nation's capital May 11, according to two senior federal officials.

For 11 intense minutes, customs aircraft and military fighter jets tried to intercept the Cessna 150 and determine whether the pilots were confused and lost or were targeting Washington. Military officials never deemed the aircraft to be hostile, but White House and U.S. Capitol officials grew more concerned as it flew within three miles of the executive mansion.

Pilot Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer told NBC that he thought the plane was going to be shot down after he saw warning flares outside the window. (Nbc)

The plane, one of the federal officials said, came within "15 to 20 seconds" of being downed before its pilots finally heeded repeated orders to turn away from the city.

The new details, also corroborated yesterday by a senior federal law enforcement official briefed on events, came as U.S. military and homeland security officials review the effectiveness of an air defense system established for the Washington area after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because much of the air defense system is classified.

As authorities piece together the lessons of the scare -- described by some officials as the closest the government has come to downing a civilian plane over Washington since Sept. 11, 2001 -- they are confronting sensitive issues involving split-second decisions, communications and the federal chain of command.

Against a light aircraft moving at a relatively slow 100 mph, with two evidently confused pilots, authorities were able to order the evacuation of the White House and Capitol complex only two to three minutes before the plane would have reached either. Outside analysts said it remains unknown what might happen against a larger, faster aircraft intending to evade defenders.

"The question is, if it were a faster plane . . . whether or not the system would have been as responsive," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.

Based on a Homeland Security Department chronology, it is unclear whether jet fighters would have been in position to take action against the Cessna before it reached the White House or Capitol. The Cessna penetrated a 16-mile-radius no-fly zone at 11:50 a.m.; F-16 fighters were scrambled from nearby Andrews Air Force Base two minutes later.

The White House and Capitol were evacuated just after noon, as the plane continued to approach. The fighters fired warning flares at the Cessna at 12:04 p.m., and it was diverted.

Pentagon and Homeland Security officials have said the air defense system worked effectively during the crisis. But in a statement released Friday, the pilots said they had trouble communicating on the radio frequency that a customs helicopter crew signaled for them to use.

Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and Customs and Border Protection confirmed the communications problems cited by the Cessna pilots, Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer, 69, and Troy Martin, 36, both of Pennsylvania. The frequency was unavailable in that patch of airspace, the officials said.

Customs spokesman Gary Bracken said an unidentified plane on the ground had activated an emergency locator beacon that uses the same frequency, interfering with radio communications. Sheaffer eventually was able to communicate.

FAA officials have issued an emergency order revoking Sheaffer's pilot's license, saying he became lost soon after leaving a Pennsylvania airport, entered restricted airspace and showed "an utter disregard for or a complete lack of understanding of basic requirements for the safe operation of aircraft." Although Martin was at the Cessna's controls, the FAA held Sheaffer responsible because Martin is a student pilot.

Sheaffer's attorney, Mark McDermott, appealed the revocation yesterday and said Sheaffer would have left the restricted airspace sooner if the radio frequency were working. In an interview yesterday on NBC's "Today" show, Sheaffer said he thought the plane was going to be shot down after he saw the flares outside his window.

Pilot Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer told NBC that he thought the plane was going to be shot down after he saw warning flares outside the window. (Nbc)

FAA officials said that Sheaffer "froze" during the incident, and Homeland Security officials said it remains unclear whether the flares, the radio or some other factor caused the plane to turn away.

Communications emerged as a problem again Monday, during another air incursion. A Canadian aircraft lost its radio because of a lightning strike and breached the no-fly zone. And a new backup system could not be used, North American Aerospace Defense Command officials said yesterday.

The new, ground-based system -- made operational Saturday -- is designed to flash red and green lasers at pilots who accidentally fly into restricted capital airspace as an alternative to radio warnings or signal flares. The system was not used Monday because the lasers cannot penetrate clouds in poor weather, said a NORAD spokeswoman, Air Force 1st Lt. Lisa Citino.

The Canadian aircraft was escorted by F-16 fighters to Gaithersburg airport.

Yesterday, a U.S. Homeland Security official confirmed an Associated Press account that discussions are underway about transferring the duties of the customs aircraft to the U.S. Coast Guard. Airborne customs agents, as law enforcement officers, have discretion to use lethal force against pilots if lives are threatened. For the military to down a civilian aircraft, the order must come through a strict chain of command. The Coast Guard can follow rules of engagement similar to the military, officials said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was concerned about the dual authorities -- military and customs -- that were highlighted by the Cessna incident.

Taken together, federal officials said, the close call on shooting down the aircraft, the radio breakdown and complex command issues underscore limitations of the air defense system. The system, they said, gives government leaders very little time to make life-or-death decisions.

Restricted-flight zones around the capital cannot be pushed outward without disrupting more general aviation airports and major commercial airliner routes.

Yesterday, Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for Chertoff, reiterated that officials believe the security measures May 11 were effective. "We will continue to review all incidents of this nature to determine areas where we can strengthen these measures," he said.

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Maj. Paul Swiergosz, said the military would not discuss specific rules of engagement or individuals with shoot-down authority, some of which is generally classified. He added that 40,000 combat air patrols and 2,000 scrambles or intercepts have been flown in support of domestic air security since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The authority to authorize a shoot down of a civilian aircraft is delegated to a very, very small number of senior civilian and military officials," Swiergosz said. "It is well rehearsed. There is nothing ad hoc about it. . . . At the end of the day, we are going to safeguard the capital, and they are not going to get to their target."

A Defense Department official said military commanders had determined that the Cessna was not a threat before fighter pilots fired the warning flares.

"You can look at the tail number, look up where they're coming from, who's on board, see what they're doing, you can make some pretty reasonable assumptions and say what this is, versus what it is not," the Defense official said. "Does that indicate to a terrorist, 'All you have to do is hijack a Cessna, pose as an instructor and they're going to give me right of way?' No."

Staff writers Petula Dvorak, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Sari Horwitz and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

05-25-2005, 07:32 AM
I thought only the President had the authority to shoot down civilian aircraft...

05-25-2005, 07:46 AM
And it only took 2 minutes to get planes in the air to intercept. That's impressive.

05-25-2005, 06:55 PM
Rumsfeld denies authorizing plane downing


By Jon Hurdle Wed May 25, 3:42 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday denied a report that he authorized the military to shoot down a small plane that prompted evacuations of Washington power centers earlier this month.

The Washington Post, quoting federal officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, reported on Wednesday that Rumsfeld had given the military authority to take the action, if necessary, against the Cessna 150 that had wandered into restricted airspace over the Washington area on May 11.

But in a speech to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, the secretary denied that he had given any such authorization before the light plane was finally forced to land near Washington by F-16 fighter jets.

"It was totally not true," he said, naming the Post in his speech.

"It was two anonymous sources and, of course, it wasn't true. I never even got on the phone to discuss the circumstances of the little plane," Rumsfeld said after both the Pentagon and White House also denied the story.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said in Washington that Rumsfeld had been prepared to act but never gave any order.

"The secretary was notified as soon as the situation developed. And he was available to make any necessary decisions with respect to this incursion. It never reached the point at which he had to make those kinds of decisions," Whitman told reporters.

Whitman declined to talk about the military's specific rules of engagement involving incursions by aircraft into restricted air space over the U.S. capital region. But he said if the situation had reached a certain point, commanders with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, would have asked for Rumsfeld's involvement.

"The situation never reached that point," Whitman said, adding that "the appropriate procedures were followed."

Asked about The Post report that the plane was 15 to 20 seconds from being shot down, Whitman said, "I don't know how they got it so wrong."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan also said it was his understanding the situation never reached the point of Rumsfeld making a shoot-down decision.

The U.S. Capitol, White House and Supreme Court were evacuated as the plane approached. The two F-16 fighter jets fired four flares to get the pilot's attention before escorting the propeller aircraft to nearby Frederick, Maryland.

The Federal Aviation Administration revoked pilot Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer's license for one year. Troy Martin, a student pilot who was at the controls during the incident, was not disciplined.