Stray pilots cloud efforts to secure skies over D.C.

Despite tougher rules, flights are increasing

October 18, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the skies over the nation's capital, where no private aircraft are allowed to fly, pilot confusion recently resulted in the following incidents:

A deaf pilot, straying into the restricted zone over Washington during a break from a convention for hearing-impaired aviators in Frederick, was intercepted by fighter jets and forced to land on the Eastern Shore. A Goodyear blimp operator was cited by federal officials, alleging that he took the dirigible into a no-fly zone over the city. And a Maryland flight instructor was accused of flying over the capital twice - and questioned by the Secret Service twice about whether he hated President Bush and had ever been admitted to a mental institution.

Patrols by fighter jets over the White House since last year's terrorist strikes, as well as the creation of an expanded no-fly zone over the capital, have no doubt kept more private pilots from inadvertently intruding on the region's restricted airspace than before Sept. 11.

But these pilots are still flying where they should not, and federal records show that more have been cited for flying over Washington in recent months than at any point since the attacks - an occurrence so routine, it usually doesn't even make the papers.

None of the flyovers has been linked to terrorist activity, and the Federal Aviation Administration says these incidents involve confused pilots who fly off course by mistake. Even so, each of these cases prompts a sophisticated anti-terror response: Sometimes the military scrambles F-16 fighter jets, or the Secret Service sends armed agents to local airports to investigate. Almost always, the FAA is left with a mountain of paperwork to follow up.

As for the pilots, the rules say they can be fined or have their licenses revoked, though in most cases they've gotten off with a reprimand. They also risk what some might consider worse punishment - public ridicule.

"With idiots like this making security agencies nervous, we'll never be allowed to fly near D.C. again," gripes a recent message from pilot Jim Clark in the chat room of the local aviators Web site

Pilots describe running into a hornet's nest of security with each incident.

"The Anne Arundel County police showed up in six different squad cars, they had M-16s and all the response gear, the body armor," said Stephen M. Novak, a 46-year-old retired Army intelligence officer who was held briefly at Tipton Airport in Odenton after he is alleged to have flown too close to the White House, a charge he denies.

Novak, who was questioned by Secret Service agents and is awaiting word from the FAA on a possible penalty, has called a lawyer should his case get ugly.

D.C. airspace, patrolled by military jets, is a risky place for a disagreement.

"I'm surprised there hasn't been somebody shot out of the sky yet," said Steve Brown, the manager at Carroll County Regional Airport in Westminster, Md., where pilots often take off toward the restricted airspace around Washington and Camp David. He contends that pilots simply don't read the regional restrictions closely enough.

"It's posted - everybody knows about it - but for whatever reason they fly through it anyway," Brown said. "Most of them probably are not from around here."

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, a U.S.-Canadian military operation that orders the interceptions by F-16s, keeps secret exactly how many times it has scrambled jets to intercept private pilots over D.C. But it does say that since Sept. 11, it has ordered a total 700 intercepts in its North American territory.

Some errant aviators around D.C. are tracked by Air Force pilots, who use radio or hand signals to direct them to the nearest airstrip. Many times, though, private pilots are not challenged in the air; they learn of their mistakes only after they land, when authorities lock their propellers and detain them in airport waiting rooms. Authorities are handling so many of these cases, some pilots don't even learn of their missteps until weeks after the fact, when they receive an angry FAA letter.

Air traffic controllers around D.C. say that with so many private pilots messing up, it's hard to feel panic when a plane goes where it shouldn't. "I hate to say it, but you kind of get hardened to it after you've worked so many of these," said Guy Slone, an air traffic controller who catches misguided pilots on the radar at an air traffic control center in Leesburg, Va. "You start saying to yourself, `Oh well, it just must be another one.'"

The FAA says it is publishing updated aviation charts and taking other steps so that pilots don't end up in the city's no-fly zone in the first place.

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