How did two Cessna 150 pilots cause worldwide hysteria?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — From January to mid-April of this year, Blackhawk helicopters patrolling the sky in the ADIZ around the Washington/Baltimore area have responded to more than 280 incursions. That averaged three a day. But one last month — when two persons in a Cessna 150 came close to the White House — generated worldwide hysteria. What made this one so different?

Apparently there were two differences with this flight. First, after entering the ADIZ the aircraft, according to a depiction in “”The Washington Post”” — appeared to be exiting the ADIZ and then suddenly turned back, aiming directly toward the government buildings and, second, the pilots refused to alter course after the intercept. As a result, the flight came within three miles of the White House. That distance is less than one-and-a-half lengths of a runway at Dulles Airport. The plane came within seconds of a decision to shoot down.

After first heading for the airport at Leesburg, Va., and then going to Frederick, Md., the plane landed and both pilots were taken into custody. It was explained that neither the pilot nor the person with a student license had checked weather or NOTAMS. Reports indicated when Blackhawk helicopters came alongside the 150, the elder man “”froze”” and the student pilot had to take over and follow the intercepting aircraft.

No charges were filed against the two pilots, but the FAA has actions pending against the older man with a private license, and you can bet your bottom dollar that both pilots are being investigated to a point that there will be a record of their lives down to knowing every time they burped.

Much of the Homeland Security Department’s efforts are classified. But some information indicates the extent of ADIZ incursions. From January 2003 to July 2004, there were more than 2,000 “”targets of interest”” detected over the Washington airspace. The Blackhawks based at Reagan National Airport scrambled 350 times. Some of these were aircraft violating the ADIZ, some were the result of poor communications, and some were reported to be radar problems.

On the ground there are frequent security actions that get little more than a passing mention by the media. Only a few days after the Cessna 150 incident, streets around the White House were closed while security officials inspected a suspicious van approaching the White House, about which bomb-sniffing dogs raised questions. Frequently bridges over the Potomac River are closed or streets are shut off while suspicious packages or vehicles are checked.

But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, aviation still is a dramatic activity. The news media love it because they know little about it. As a former newspaperman, I remember the slogan William Randolph Hearst had for his publications: “”Get it first, but first get it right.””

The media didn’t bother to get it right. Reports indicated one of the persons in the Cessna was a flight instructor. He wasn’t. He just had not flown for several years. When Phil Boyer, president of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) was being interviewed, the reporter started by saying, “”With me is the president of the Airline Owners and Pilots Association.””

A number of Washington aviation interests tried to minimize the damage, with AOPA taking the lead in many areas. That association ran full page ads in USA Today and Roll Call, a newspaper that has circulation primarily on Capitol Hill.

The National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS) used the incident to chide the FAA for outsourcing flight service stations. Citing the services of flight service personnel, NAATS declared: “”The FAA has discontinued some services and will be contracting out the rest beginning in October.”” The Cessna 150 pilots reportedly did not get a briefing before starting off.

Only days later, security began its program of using red and green lasers to alert pilots that they are in the wrong place. Pilots who keep informed will know their meanings, pilots like those in the 150 won’t.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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