- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

Because Washington has a height-limit on buildings, it is, unusual for the East Coast, a city of big sky — barring pollution, pollen and late afternoon thunderstorms.

Lately, thanks to the Department of Homeland Security, the sky has become one of the most entertaining places in the capital.

Most notably was the day early this month when a Cessna 150 blundered into Washington’s post-September 11, 2001, highly restricted air space and got within 3 miles of the White House and 15 or 20 seconds of being shot down before two F-16s, a Black Hawk helicopter and a government Citation jet got it turned around.

The Pentagon has confirmed that the military had been cleared to shoot down the craft. If we get this worked up about two goobers in a toy airplane — the military never did consider it hostile — imagine what happens if something bigger and faster shows up. And indeed the F-16s this past week intercepted a twin-engine Canadian aircraft with lightning-damaged radios.

I hope the Homeland Security folks have thought this thing through. So they shoot down a plane over crowded Washington. Whatever they shoot at the plane will certainly continue and hit something else. Not only do we lose the people on the plane but the wreckage will fall on something or someone. I work three blocks from the White House and have to get in the habit of looking up when I leave the office to see what might be coming down.

Human nature being what it is, if word got out that the F-16s were about to take out a large plane over the city, we would all flock outside to watch, secure in the belie debris would surely flatten someone else.

Air security has become a big deal here. Reagan National Airport, by far the most convenient of the three serving the city, has been closed to private aircraft since September 11, 2001 (An exception was made to allow fat cats to fly in aboard their corporate jets for President Bush’s Inaugural.)

The security people are considering reopening National to limited private aircraft with a few daunting caveats: The pilots must pass a background check; inbound planes must stop at a satellite airport for passenger and baggage screening; and an armed law enforcement officer must be aboard. Presumably that way we can shoot down the plane from within without going to the expense of having an F-16 do it.

We don’t even really need the F-16. There are anti-aircraft missile batteries on the roofs of buildings near the White House and there’s a big one not far from my house. The newspaper ran a picture of it this winter, sitting in the middle of a snow-covered field, the whole scene so pastoral and tranquil it would have made a nice seasonal card from Washington.

Because National airport is in the middle of metropolitan Washington, the locals take a big interest in it. Gravelly Point Park is separated from the end of the main runway only by a small channel leading to a marina, and in a weird custom people gather there for the thrill of having a huge jet scream down a few feet over their heads.

Then there’s helicopter traffic. Military helicopters going to and from the Pentagon. Park Service helos coming and going in restricted air space. And Marine One’s near daily flights to the White House for Mr. Bush’s Social Security reform sales tour.

Washington real estate prices have been rising rapidly and no wonder: You get a free air show. Keep looking up.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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