WASHINGTON - A small two-seater airplane strayed into restricted airspace, heading directly for the center of Washington yesterday, prompting frenzied evacuations at the Capitol, White House and Supreme Court and a shudder of fear and emergency activity throughout the city.
Two F-16 fighter jets scrambled to intercept the plane, which had not responded to radio calls, firing four warning flares and then escorting the plane to the Frederick Municipal Airport in Western Maryland.
FOR THE RECORD - A graphic in yesterday's editions about the Cessna plane that breached restricted airspace around Washington incorrectly identified two types. The innermost flight area around Washington is called the Flight-restricted Zone. The outer perimeter is the D.C. Air Defense Identification Zone.
A pilot and a student pilot, en route from Pennsylvania to an air show in North Carolina, were taken into custody and questioned by the FBI, Secret Service and local authorities. They were identified as Hayden L. "Jim" Sheaffer Jr., 69, of Lititz, Pa.; and student pilot Troy D. Martin, 36, of Akron, Pa.
John Henderson, the president of the flying club that owns the plane, said Sheaffer had planned to pilot the aircraft.
Lorie Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Secret Service, said agents determined that the security breach was "accidental," and that the agency would not file criminal charges related to the incident. The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing whether to pursue sanctions related to the pilot's license.
The entire incident, a test for the capital's post-Sept. 11 response system, lasted only about 15 minutes around noon. But for many, especially thousands at the Capitol complex who were told by Capitol police they had two minutes to get out of the building, the incident conjured up images of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and fears of a repeat performance on another sun-drenched day.
The security breach also came on the heels of an incident Tuesday in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, where President Bush addressed a large crowd. A hand grenade was found within 100 feet of the president but did not explode.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the single-engine plane came within three miles of the White House. He said the threat level was raised to yellow, then orange, then red - the highest - within four minutes, and then, eight minutes later, back down to yellow.
Bush was on a bike ride at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Beltsville at the time and was not informed of the security breach by his security detail until the end of his ride, the White House said.
Vice President Cheney, who was at the White House, was taken to a secure location by motorcade. First lady Laura Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan, who was staying at the White House for a tribute in her honor last night in Washington, were ushered to a secure bunker facility in the building.
The incident began at 11:28 a.m., when FAA radar picked up the aircraft, a small two-seater, single-engine Cessna 150 with high wings. The aircraft, heading south from Smoketown Airport in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, breached the security zone over Washington, prompting alerts across the city.
Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said the first alert went out when the plane was 21 miles - 17 minutes - from the city.
Two Black Hawk helicopters were dispatched at 11:55 a.m. from Reagan National Airport, about three miles south of the White House.
A source involved with the incident said the Cessna pilot repeatedly ignored requests to communicate or acknowledge their instructions.
Crew members aboard the Black Hawk, operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and designed to intercept "slow movers" like the Cessna, pulled alongside the plane. Procedures of the Black Hawk call for the crew to hold a small signboard out the window, instructing the pilot to switch to a certain radio frequency.
That order was ignored, and the Cessna soon was overtaken by two F-16 fighter jets from nearby Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The warplanes fired four flares as the Cessna continued south toward the Capitol area. "He ignored the flares," said the source, who requested anonymity. "He wasn't coming up on the net. He wasn't talking to anybody."
Suddenly, the Cessna turned west and appeared to be following the instructions of the F-16 pilots, who ordered the plane which way to turn and where to head.
It wasn't until just before the plane landed in Frederick that Sheaffer came on the radio and said he understood the instructions, the source said. "He didn't start talking until just before he landed," said the source.
While there was concern in the Transportation Security Agency's operations center in Herndon, Va., which was tracking the plane, there was not alarm, because it was clear the aircraft was small, with a cruising speed of just over 100 miles per hour.
"It's not a 747 doing 500 knots; it's a small aircraft going very slowly," the source said.
A similar plane crashed into the White House in 1994, killing the Maryland man who stole it from a local airport but doing little damage and injuring no one else.