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THE NATION

White House Evacuated When Small Plane Enters Airspace

Security: The Cessna pilot apparently got lost and failed to contact air controllers soon enough, officials say.

June 20, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The White House was briefly evacuated and military jets scrambled Wednesday night after a small plane flew through restricted airspace near the executive mansion.

The Cessna aircraft landed in Richmond, Va., about 100 miles from Washington, and law enforcement officials said it appeared to be simply a case of a pilot who got lost.

The plane came within four miles of the White House, Secret Service agent Brian Marr said. Authorities said the plane belatedly made contact with air traffic controllers at nearby Reagan National Airport.

President Bush had returned to the executive mansion 20 minutes earlier from a Republican fund-raiser when some staff members and reporters were ordered to leave the building shortly after 8 p.m.

Bush remained in the White House throughout the incident but was protected by unspecified security procedures, officials said.

A man in a dark suit hurried through the White House press area saying, "Get out, get out, everybody out. Secret Service says everyone has to leave the building."

Not all White House staff members left.

The incident occurred only hours after staff members at the Federal Reserve, including Chairman Alan Greenspan, were evacuated from that building on nearby Constitution Avenue after a suspicious package was found in a garbage bin. Police cordoned off several blocks, delaying traffic during the afternoon rush hour. The package turned out to be harmless.

Authorities were interviewing the Cessna pilot, who had flown from a small airport in Massachusetts and had not made required radio contact as he approached Washington, officials said.

The plane approached from the northeast above the capital at 10,500 feet, well below the minimum 18,000 feet required for the restricted space, federal aviation officials said. The restriction applies to a 15-mile radius around Reagan National Airport just outside of Washington.

Two F-16 military jets were immediately sent out, and they followed the plane until it reached Richmond.

The White House evacuation lasted about 15 minutes, ending as soon as the plane changed direction, officials said.

"The guy flew out of Gardner, Mass., airspace," said Petty Officer Beverly Allen of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. "We escorted the guy to Richmond Airport, where authorities apprehended him."

Gardner is a city of about 21,000 in central Massachusetts about 50 miles west of Boston. The plane was headed for Raleigh, N.C.

"This just looks like a pilot that had no clue he was entering restrictive airspace," said Marr, the Secret Service agent.

Wednesday night's evacuation of the White House was the first since Sept. 11, when the building was thought to be a target of one of the hijacked jetliners used in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Four commercial airliners and a medical helicopter have crossed into prohibited airspace protecting the White House since Sept. 11, Federal Aviation Administration officials say.

Pilots have flown through the prohibited airspace protecting the White House at least 94 times over the past decade.

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