- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 27 (UPI) — The F-16s flying homeland security patrols above Washington have been diving through the region's crowded airspace unannounced to air traffic controllers and airline pilots, risking mid-air collisions.

Sources told Channel 7 in Washington Thursday the jets descend from 20,000-feet, chasing and identifying small, low-flying aircraft to guard against terrorists using planes as weapons.

But, failing to get prior clearance from civilian air traffic controllers worries an aviation analyst.

"It is potentially a very dangerous situation," said Josh Marks, from George Washington University's Transportation Operations Center.

Marks told Channel 7 the F-16s are descending at 500 or more miles an hour and crossing through lanes of slower moving traffic. "So they literally have to dive through lanes of traffic to investigate these threats," he said.

Sources told Channel 7 that one such incident Tuesday left an air traffic controller so shaken that minutes later he lost concentration while working radar, and let two jetliners fly too close near Dulles airport.

It was a near miss with the planes separated by half the Federal Aviation Administration's minimum requirements.

Marks added, "It's more likely that a military aircraft would collide with a civilian aircraft that the military pilot didn't see as he or she were diving through the civilian lanes of traffic."

Most of the small aircraft the F-16s have been intercepting are military planes on approved flight plans. Meaning they pose no threat and making risky intercepts unnecessary.

FAA spokesman William Schumann told Channel 7: "This is all we will say about this. We are aware of the incident on Tuesday. We work with the air force daily. FAA air traffic control has specific procedures in place to accommodate the military mission in the Washington area air space. These procedures ensure there is a safe operation at all times."

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