- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005


The Homeland Security Department is considering whether it should seek authority for its pilots to shoot down errant planes such as the one that flew within three miles of the White House this month, said an internal agency memo obtained by the Associated Press.

Putting the Coast Guard on air patrol duty in the Washington area could raise questions about whether the Homeland Security Department or the Pentagon would give an order to use lethal force in an emergency.

Hundreds of planes have entered the restricted area — about 2,000 square miles radiating from the three commercial airports around Washington — since it was established in February 2003 just before the Iraq war.

Most planes that transgress do so by skirting the edge of the zone by mistake, said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Aircraft that mistakenly enter the restricted zone are steered away by Customs and Border Protection helicopters scrambled to intercept them.

These helicopters do not have authority to fire warning or disabling shots, but some Coast Guard aircraft do. Both agencies are arms of the Homeland Security Department.

The issue arose at a May 16 meeting of homeland security officials that focused on the brief scare this month when a lost Cessna flew into restricted airspace. The Cessna was intercepted by customs Black Hawk helicopters and Air Force F-16 fighter jets before veering away, just as officials discussed shooting it down.

“We raised the issue of the cops … out there having the right of self-defense under use of force policy,” Homeland Security acting Undersecretary Randy Beardsworth wrote in an internal May 17 e-mail about the meeting, which included Secretary Michael Chertoff and Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson.

“As you can easily recognize, a potential option is to have the [Coast Guard] take this mission,” Mr. Beardsworth said in the e-mail, which was obtained by the Associated Press.

The government Monday revoked the license of the pilot in charge of the errant May 11 flight, saying his pilot skills were so rusty and his judgment so bad that he was an “unacceptable risk to safety” in the sky.

The unusual punishment was meted out to Hayden L. “Jim” Sheaffer after his wayward flight forced the scrambling of military aircraft and the panicked evacuation of the White House, Capitol and Supreme Court.

It was not immediately clear whether giving the Homeland Security Department shoot-down authority would have to be approved by Congress or whether it could be handled as an internal agency matter.

Department officials are expected to discuss the proposal further in coming days, said customs and Coast Guard officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon declined comment on the idea, except to say that the Defense Department “welcomes any ideas or concepts that they would share with us to further the goal of making the homeland safe.”

Meanwhile, a new system of lasers designed to warn pilots that they have entered restricted airspace wasn’t turned on during the latest air space violation for the same reason the radio of the errant plane did not work: the weather.

Lightning struck the small Canadian aircraft flying to Gaithersburg from Knoxville, Tenn., on Monday. The plane lost radio contact with air traffic control and its transponder signal.

Once the plane’s communications went out, fighters took off from Andrews Air Force Base and escorted it to the Gaithersburg airport.

To avoid the expense of scrambling fighter jets to escort errant planes from the restricted area around the District, the Pentagon on Saturday had inaugurated a system of red and green warning lasers deployed around Washington.

First Lt. Lisa Citino, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said that lasers weren’t turned on Monday because the pilot couldn’t have seen them through the clouds. “The lasers didn’t sparkle for the same reason his radio and transponder went out — the weather,” she said.

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