Saturday, April 25, 2009

A small, single-engine plane strayed into restricted airspace Friday, forcing anxious officials to place the White House in temporary lockdown and take steps to evacuate the U.S. Capitol.

The episode was over within minutes as two F-16 fighters and two Coast Guard helicopters were dispatched to intercept the plane and escort it to an airport in Maryland, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. U.S. Northern Command spokesman Michael Kucharek said the two helicopters established communications with the pilot.

The owner of the Indian Head Airport in Charles County, Md., said the pilot and his wife were en route from Maine to North Carolina to visit the couple’s daughter. Owner Gil Bauserman said a technical problem on the Cessna 180 forced the plane to enter restricted airspace, prompting the military response.

“It was just a navigation mistake, the GPS went and the pilot got confused,” Mr. Bauserman said in an interview with the Associated Press. The airport owner identified the pilot as William Wales.

“This has happened many times. The restricted zone in D.C., all it does is catch poor innocent people. They’ve never caught a terrorist; it’s just people making a mistake,” he said.

Secret Service questioned the shaken pilot in one of the hangars.

“When F-16s showed up on this guy’s wings, he was scared to death,” Mr. Bauserman said.

The military notified the airport that the plane would be making an unscheduled landing at 12:45 p.m., Mr. Bauserman said. The plane landed 15 minutes later, escorted by the F-16s and the helicopters.

Mr. Kucharek said there was a second plane that violated restricted airspace, but it landed before military jets were launched.

The White House said President Obama was “briefly relocated” during the incident, but declined to say where he was taken.

The Senate was in session, and briefly recessed. The House was not meeting.

Secret Service spokesman Special Agent Malcolm Wiley said the security measures were taken “out of an abundance of caution.”

Authorities have been on high alert for planes entering airspace in and around major government buildings since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

FAA figures show that since that time, aircraft have entered restricted airspace around the nation’s capital roughly twice a day.

In June 2004, a small plane carrying then-Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher entered restricted airspace as the Capitol prepared for the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan.

In May 2005, an amateur pilot accidentally flew into prohibited space. There was another brief evacuation of the Capitol a month later when a small plane entered restricted airspace.

&#8226 AP writers Jim Abrams and Pamela Hess in Washington and Brett Zongker in Maryland contributed to this report.

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