Kooks on the loose

September 16, 1994|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- FROM A SMALL plane buzzing low over the dozing city, the White House sits among dark trees like a dimly lit wedding cake.

For Frank Corder, peering through the Cessna windshield at 500 feet, it must have drawn him like a moth to flame -- a perfect place to end a boozy, hopeless life.

Now the world would pay attention to him.

He had stolen the red-and-white, two-seater Cessna, the same plane he took lessons in, from a grassy Maryland airstrip.

He flew 70 miles down Interstate 95, sailed across the sleeping Imperial City and banked in a "J" turn around the flood-lit obelisk of the Washington Monument.

Engine off, he swooped silently in a death dive toward the presidential mansion.

Nobody or nothing could stop him.

The chilling truth is that Secret Service experts have known for years that it's almost impossible to prevent an aerial intruder from crashing into the White House.

Frank Corder was their nightmare come true.

AIn a country loaded with Bill Clinton haters, he rather liked the president. Corder, 38, was a moody, blue-jeans guy, a depressed loner more interested in the bottle than politics.

"He once said Clinton was the best thing going for the country," said an Aberdeen, Md., friend.

But they all say the same thing about Frank Corder -- he was a man at the dead end of a booze- and drug-addled life who talked of "going down in flames."

He was living in his beat-up '82 Cadillac. Busted for driving while drunk, he'd lost his trucking job. Shrinks at the Veterans Administration hospital failed to help. Corder's father had died of cancer. Now he'd split with his wife, a VA hospital nurse.

"Frank had nobody, nowhere to go," said cousin Dee George, a psychiatric nurse. "I think he just wanted to kill himself."

AOn a starlit night, the Cessna swept over the iron fence, skidded across the South Lawn and bounced off a magnolia tree planted by Andrew Jackson. It smacked in a twisted heap 50 feet below the presidential bedroom. Corder was dead in the accordion-crumpled metal.

The shock of White House cops who saw the incoming aircraft and began yelling over radios -- well, let Secret Service agent Carl Meyer describe the chaos:

"I mean, was this a plane that had run out of gas? Did someone have a heart attack? Was it a diversion, was something [else] going to come? We had to determine the situation. Check for bombs, call the fire department. So it took a little while."

Nobody fired a shot.

Translation: Despite millions spent on manpower and technology, the embarrassing, frightening secret is that the White House is an open target for attack from the air.

Don't even imagine the disaster if Frank Corder had been a suicidal assassin flying a jet fighter loaded with bombs.

Sure, there's a no-fly zone over Washington's federal buildings. That's why airliners make a zigzag descent along the Potomac.

But a low-flying attacker could evade National Airport's radar. Guards who sometime stand with Stinger missiles atop the White House would face a bang-bang decision -- in Corder's case, 14 seconds.

"A Stinger might be useless against a prop plane with engine off," shrugged an ex-Secret Service agent. "If the heat-seeking missile hits a commercial airliner, you've got catastrophe."

What's a president to do? Live in a bomb-proof cave like Saddam Hussein?

The White House has become a magnet for kooks -- a helicopter plopping on the front lawn amid shotgun fire, a pickup truck bashing the front gate, nuts trying to leap the fences. A president lives in a fragile bubble.

That's the unnerving truth of Frank Corder's amateurish crash. It's not Tom Clancy-style terrorists who keep the Secret Service sweating. No, the real fear is of weirdos who attack a president for glory and celebrityhood.

Frank Corder, who had nobody, nothing but a whiskey bottle, got his 15 minutes of fame. And made the Secret Service look like idiots.

Come on, guys, shorten the odds next time.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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