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Fri, Jul 09, 2004

How Governor Fletcher Almost Bought The Farm

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 of Washington."

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 complete outage.

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 great."

"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 doors."

Chairman Mica seemed to agree, extending the case in point to include his demands that Reagan National be reopened to GA traffic.

"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 said.

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 plan.

"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 here."



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