By Pete Yost, Associated Press Writer – 15 mins ago
WASHINGTON – A small, single-engine plane strayed into restricted air space near the U.S. Capitol on Friday, forcing anxious officials to place the White House in temporary lock down and take steps to evacuate the U.S. Capitol.
The episode was over within minutes as two F-16 fighter jets and two Coast Guard helicopters were dispatched to intercept the plane and escort it to an airport in Maryland, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. U.S. Northern Command spokesman Michael Kucharek said the two helicopters established communications with the pilot.
The owner of the Indian Head Airport in Charles County, Md., said the pilot and his wife were en route from Maine to North Carolina to visit the couple's daughter. Owner Gil Bauserman said a technology problem, rather than anything nefarious, forced the plane to enter restricted air space, prompting the swift military response.
"It was just a navigation mistake, the GPS went and the pilot got confused," Bauserman said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"This has happened many times. The restricted zone in D.C., all it does is catch poor innocent people. They've never caught a terrorist, it's just people making a mistake," he said.
The military notified the airport that the plane would be making an unscheduled landing at 12:45 p.m. EDT, according to Bauserman. The plane landed 15 minutes later, escorted by the F-16s and the helicopters. The FAA identified the plane as a Piper Tri-Pacer.
The airport, with a runway of about 3,000 feet, is located about 12 miles south of Andrews Air Force Base.
President Barack Obama apparently was in the White House at the time. The White House declined to say where the president was, but Obama went ahead with a 1:30 p.m. EDT appearance in the Diplomatic Reception Room to discuss affordable college education.
The Senate was in session, and briefly recessed. The House was not meeting.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Capitol's alert level was briefly elevated but quickly returned to normal.
Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley said the security measures were taken "out of an abundance of caution."
Across the street from the Capitol, there was no interruption of a House hearing at which former Vice President Al Gore was testifying about climate change legislation.
Authorities have been on high alert for planes entering air space in and around major government buildings since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Since then, there have been several incidents in which planes have strayed into the restricted air space. In June 2004, a small plane carrying then-Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher entered restricted air space as the Capitol prepared for the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan.
Police warned of an impending crash and yelled at mourners, including lawmakers and dignitaries, to run faster as they evacuated the building. Women threw off their high heels to move faster.
Two F-15 fighter planes already patrolling in anticipation of the Reagan funeral were diverted to intercept the potentially hostile aircraft. Later reports found that the scrambling of the jets was unnecessary, caused by miscommunications among various agencies.
In May 2005, an amateur pilot accidentally flew into prohibited space. There was another brief evacuation of the Capitol a month later, again when a small plane entered restricted air space.
Associated Press writers Jim Abrams and Pamela Hess contributed to this report.