NORAD Was About To Shoot Him Down Last Month
"We don't believe it can happen again."
Those words from the FAA's Linda Schuessler, testifying before
the House Armed Services Committee Thursday about last month's air
defense incident over Washington (DC) -- one that caused the
evacuation of both the Capitol and Supreme Court.
This all started June 9th, as Washington was
preparing for former President Ronald Reagan's state
funeral. Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher was
flying from Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International to
Reagan National in the state's King Air 200 (file photo of type,
below). Shortly after take-off, the aircraft's transponder stopped
working. No problem, the governor's plane was on a flight plan and
the crew was talking to controllers. But as the King Air entered
the Washington ADIZ, a civilian contractor didn't get the word, saw
the untagged radar return and hit the panic button.
The Capitol and Supreme
Court buildings were evacuated. Two F-15s already on patrol over
the nation's capitol were ordered to intercept. But either because
of the rules of engagement set forth by the Pentagon or because of
IFR conditions, or because they were simply too far away to
effectively intercept the King Air, the warplanes were unable to
shoot it down.
Sources outside NORAD said the rules of engagement prohibit
close encounters between fighters and bogeys over urban areas like
Washington. The rules are different, said the sources, for
encounters over open country.
The Washington Post, however, tells a different story. It
reports the fighters were ready to shoot and that the only thing
saving Governor Fletcher's plane was that its crew turned on final
to Reagan National.
NORAD, which ordered the fighter intercept, was intentionally
vague about just how close Governor Fletcher came to being blown
out of the sky, saying much of the information is classified. The
fact that "the plane landed without incident June 9 indicates that
the procedures developed since Sept. 11 work," said NORAD in a
statement to lawmakers.
Legislators weren't so sure.
Thursday, the whole incident was up for dissection by a
committee in the House of Representatives, where the incident was
greeted with concerns about a near miss as well as worries that the
ADIZ around Washington is just too small.
"The purpose of the hearing is find out what went wrong, and
have they fixed it," said House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John
Mica (R-FL). "The good news is we evacuated the Capitol in record
time. The bad news was it was a false alarm and it appears there
was a lack of coordination between FAA and Homeland Security, and
we can't afford that kind of a gap in the future."
Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) was worried there aren't enough
safeguards for instances where one agency doesn't know what the
other is doing. He said he's concerned that more mistakes could
lead to a plane full of innocent people being shot out of the sky.
"I think we're only very lucky that there hasn't been a
catastrophic mistake made," he said.
But Homeland Security spokeswoman Katy Mynster said, "We believe
appropriate security measures were put in place based on the
information we had at the time.... Of course, we continue to look
for ways to improve communications."
Some lawmakers didn't appear to be unwilling to let the DHS, FAA
and NORAD off the hook quite so easily.
Congressman Jim Turner (D-TX) told the committee, "The incident
raises the question: Does the existing no-fly zone around our
nation's capital give sufficient time to intercept a
terrorist-controlled flight? Further it appears that the FAA
miscommunicated with other agencies responsible for the protection
The first part of Turner's statement is what really irks folks
like AOPA President Phil Boyer. "It's the government's
responsibility to fix its communication failures and stop punishing
GA for a problem that has nothing to do with aviation security or
pilots," he said. "General aviation operations are safe and secure
and should not be singled out because the government botched its
own ADIZ procedures.
Once again, GA has been made the scapegoat," Boyer said in
remarks posted on the AOPA's website.
Some of the points that emerged from Thursday's hearing:
At first, FAA controllers mislabeled the problem with Fletcher's
transponder, indicating it was a Mode C failure as opposed to a
When it was established that the King Air's transponder was
completely kaput, the FAA disregarded its own rules and allowed the
flight to continue into the ADIZ.
The National Capital Region Coordination Center wasn't using the
same radar system as the FAA. When FAA controllers granted
Fletcher's plane an exemption and allowed it to enter the ADIZ,
nobody told the Coordination Center.
The Bigger Issue
The June 9th incident led to a quick overhaul of the radar link
between the FAA center and the NCRCC. Now, both agencies can see
the same screen. Aircraft approaching the ADIZ without fully
functional transponders will not be allowed to enter. But many
committee members were far from satisfied. Rep. Peter DeFazio
(D-OR), the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel, said, "If we
want to stop determined terrorists, the steps are clearly
inadequate. If we want to harass general aviation pilots, they're
"As the subcommittee
members pointed out time and again, this was a communications
failure between government agencies, not a security failure," said
AOPA President Boyer. "The pilots and the Air Traffic Organization
followed all required in-flight procedures. But the communications
breakdown within the federal government potentially imperiled the
governor of Kentucky."
Congressman Leonard Boswell (D-IA) said the agencies charged
with security need to "communicate, communicate, communicate."
Despite concerns on the part of some subcommittee members, the
FAA's Linda Schuessler told Rep. Stephan Pearce (R-NM) that the
agency plans to release a notice of proposed rulemaking within the
next few weeks to make the Baltimore-Washington ADIZ permanent.
That enraged the AOPA's Boyer. "AOPA will vigorously oppose any
proposal to make the ADIZ permanent," he said. "The 15 NM no-fly
zone that was put in place shortly after the September 11 attacks
provided adequate security for the nation's capital before the Iraq
war when the ADIZ was imposed, and it would do so again. The ADIZ
has cost businesses at the 19 public use airports it encompasses
tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Many have gone out of
business. Making the ADIZ permanent and removing any hope of a
return to normalcy would surely cause many more to close their
Chairman Mica seemed to agree, extending the case in point to
include his demands that Reagan National be reopened to GA
"There is no good reason that protective security measures,
adopted by TSA and approved by NSA and other agencies, cannot be
put in place to reopen DCA to most of general aviation," stated
Mica. "I believe that with proper procedures, training,
communication and coordination we can outsmart the terrorists and
restore jobs, economic activity and general aviation both in our
Capitol's airport and across our nation.
"Industry has yet to receive any indication as to whether their
proposals for security procedures at DCA are even considered," he
James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation
Association agreed wholeheartedly. "NATA has worked diligently with
the TSA to develop a plan to allow charter and general aviation
back into DCA," he said, "and there is nothing to show for it. And
at today's hearing, the FAA reports that they are considering
making the ADIZ [Aviation Defense Identification Zone] around
Washington permanent. We would be vehemently opposed to any such
"What's astonishing to me is that if the airport were open to
general aviation -- as it should be -- then this incident, with all
the corresponding communications conundrums, would never have
happened," he continued. "That's the most important lesson