As soon as Ken Stinson saw the F-16 fighter jet flying alongside him on his final approach to Carroll County Regional Airport, he knew what he had done wrong.
"It all really comes down to a student pilot who got lost and who happened to do it on the worst day of the year probably," the 43-year-old student pilot said yesterday -- after being questioned for 3 1/2 hours by the Secret Service, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and local law enforcement at the Westminster state police barracks.
"I went through P-40," the restricted airspace over the presidential retreat at Camp David, Stinson said, "and that's what happens when you go through P-40 these days."
By day's end, authorities had concluded that Stinson's intrusion was an accident. Local pilots and the airport owner compared the mistake to driving the wrong way down a one-way street, noting that the slipup is not uncommon.
"If he had done this before [the terrorist attacks] Sept. 11, you wouldn't have known it, because there would have been no F-16s," said Dave Fadio, a flight instructor at the Carroll airport and a pilot with 11 years' flying experience.
Rather, flight controllers would have followed Stinson's plane on radar to see where he landed, called that airport to speak with him and most likely ordered him to complete follow-up training.
"But since Sept. 11," Fadio said, "this is what we're seeing. And it's a big difference."
The roar of the midday visit by the pair of fighter jets drew workers out of their Westminster offices and Western Maryland College students and faculty into campus courtyards to stare at the sky and wonder what was happening.
Just over a hill from the airport, diners at Baugher's Country Restaurant ran outside, afraid that the deafening rumble was the roof caving in.
More than a dozen residents called the regional airport, and principals and teachers at nearby elementary and middle schools explained the unexpected roar of the jets to their classes after learning what had happened.
"It definitely made your hair come up on the back of your neck," said Charles Brown, 38, who runs a twice-a-week lunch stand near the airport, of the fighter jets that came screaming overhead.
Brown, who was in the Maryland National Guard for 12 years, said, "I told my wife, `This doesn't feel good,' especially the way they were circling and they were loaded. He had his [missiles] on, and he was ready to go."
Officials with the FAA and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the division of the U.S. Air Force that is charged with defending the nation's airspace, would not discuss specific intercepts of aircraft that trespass into restricted airspace.
But the transgressions have become so frequent that officials at the Carroll airport posted a cartoon and warning from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association on the bulletin board near the soda and snack machines.
"P-40 [Camp David] had six incursions in one weekend," the notice, posted about two weeks ago, reads. "Temporary flight restrictions are changing frequently. Violators can expect at least a certificate suspension. Fly professionally. ... Don't see how close you can come -- you're asking for an interception reception."
The cartoon accompanying the warning depicts a pilot cruising along near Martinsburg, W.Va., when he suddenly spots a fighter jet over his left shoulder.
Stinson was returning to the Carroll airport in a Cessna 172 airplane from a 150-mile solo flight to Winchester, Va., and York, Pa., when he saw the fighter jet beside him. Just a few seconds from touching down on the runway, he didn't have time to be nervous about the missile-laden plane.
"If you're 20 feet off the ground and you take your concentration off a landing, you have a major problem because you'll be doing 90 mph into the ground," said Stinson, who owns a management consulting firm in Reisterstown. "So you're not supposed to take your eyes off and focus on anything else."
Sun staff writers David L. Greene and Tom Bowman and Sun news researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.