The U.S. Capitol and White House were evacuated today after a small plane entered restricted airspace and came within three miles of the executive mansion. Military jets scrambled to intercept the aircraft and fired warning flares.
Two men in the aircraft, which relatives and friends said was on its way to a North Carolina air show, were taken into custody and interviewed by authorities at a Maryland airport where the plane landed after a military escort.
“This appears to be errant pilots,” Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer. he said. He said officials were concerned because the plane appeared to be “on a straight-in shot toward the center of the Washington area.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the plane came within three miles of the White House. President Bush was exercising in Maryland and not there at the time.
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 scheduled to be flown by Jim Sheaffer of Lititz, Pa., and student pilot Troy Martin, of Akron, Pa. to an air show in Lumberton, N.C.
Martin’s wife, Jill, said the two men left late Wednesday morning for Lumberton.
“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,” she said.
The encroachment into restricted airspace sparked a flurry of emergency activity throughout the capital, which was targeted on Sept. 11, 2001 and has been under a heightened state of alert since then.
Security officials in several other government buildings, including the Treasury Department and the U.S. Supreme Court, ordered people to safer locations.
Bush was biking at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Beltsville, Md., McClellan said. Vice President Dick Cheney, in the White House, was moved to a “secure location” elsewhere, McClellan said.
First lady Laura Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan, who is staying at the White House for a special event at the Reagan building, were moved to a secure location.
Congressional leaders were hustled from the Capitol by armed officers. The threat level at the White House was raised to red - the highest - for eight minutes.
The incident began at 11:28 a.m., when Federal Aviation Administration radar picked up the aircraft, a small two-seater Cessna 150 with high wings. The aircraft breached the security zone over Washington, prompting alerts across the city.
Gainer said the first alert went out when the plane was 21 miles - 17 minutes - from the city.
Two Black Hawk helicopters were dispatched at 11:55 a.m. from Reagan National Airport, according to an FAA official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The plane was also approached by two F-16 fighter aircraft, scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base. They fired four warning flares. The military aircraft escorted the plane to the Frederick Municipal Airport in Frederick, Md.
Armed security officers raced through the Capitol shouting for people to leave. “This is not a drill,” guards shouted as they moved people away from the building.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., was on the Senate floor when police told him they needed to evacuate. “They said get out of here, so I ran. There’s no joking about this kind of stuff,” Shelby said.
“People were surprised. I was surprised,” said Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who was on the House floor when the evacuation began. “There was so much commotion in the gallery. People were yelling in the gallery. We thought something had happened in the gallery, and then the alarm came to evacuate.”
Washington’s Reagan National Airport has been closed to general aviation since the Sept. 11 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 the most dramatic incident since the Sept. 11 attacks, thousands of people fled the Capitol, packed with members of Congress and other dignitaries, when a plane flew into the restricted air space just before the funeral procession for President Ronald 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.