Cessna Spooks Capitol

Posted May 11, 2005 at 6:58pm

Federal law enforcement authorities said Wednesday they will not charge two men detained after the aircraft they piloted entered restricted airspace above the District of Columbia, prompting a full-scale evacuation of the Capitol complex for the second time in less than a year.

The two men were identified in media reports as pilot Jim Sheaffer and student pilot Troy Martin, members of the Vintage Aero Club of Lancaster, Pa. They were taken into federal custody after being forced to land their small, two-seat aircraft in Frederick, Md.

A Secret Service spokesman said Wednesday evening that the two men involved, whose identities he could not confirm or deny, would not be charged in the incident.

“The intrusion into the restricted airspace appears to be accidental,” said Secret Service spokesman Tom Mazur.

Nevertheless the incident did trigger the Capitol’s most extreme emergency evacuation procedures, affecting thousands of Members, staff and visitors from numerous buildings on the Congressional campus. Law enforcement officials termed the evacuation successful, though some on Capitol Hill said the process remains flawed.

“I think we acted prudently with the information we had,” Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said at a press conference following the incident.

Officials said the Cessna model 150K originated from a small airport in Smoketown, Pa. It was intercepted by two F-16 fighter jets and two Blackhawk helicopters, all clearly visible to pedestrians and office workers on Capitol Hill.

Although the Cessna 150K is a relatively small model, and did not appear to be traveling at a high rate of speed, Gainer said the law-enforcement agency remained concerned because officials did not know whether the plane contained any potentially hazardous cargo.

Officials were also discomfited by the plane’s trajectory, Gainer explained: “It was inbound from the north in a line that caused concern.”

When Capitol Police first became aware of the aircraft, at about 11:50 a.m., the plane was approximately 17 miles from the Congressional campus.

Federal aviation restrictions enacted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, severely restrict the use of airspace over the nation’s capital, prohibiting flight in a 17-mile radius around the Washington Monument for all but government, medical and military aircraft.

Several federal agencies, including the Capitol Police, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Secret Service monitored the aircraft as it continued its approach toward the Capitol, but Gainer said the plane’s pilots did not make any attempts to communicate with the authorities.

“The pilot did not maintain or make communication with anyone,” Gainer said.

In response, the Congressional law enforcement officials elected to activate the Capitol’s air-alert system at 11:58 a.m., Gainer said.

At that time, Capitol Police began evacuating House and Senate leadership, as well as those officials necessary for “continuity of government” operations, Gainer said.

When the plane closed to within about 4.5 miles from the Capitol, police officials raised the alert to its highest level, prompting the evacuation of the Capitol and House and Senate office buildings. During the same period, the White House likewise evacuated its facility.

Gainer estimated that the evacuation of between 10,000 to 15,000 people, and possibly more, was complete within about five to six minutes.

While some Congressional lawmakers praised the evacuation process — the second full-scale evacuation since Capitol Hill offices began drilling for such an event in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks — Capitol Hill employees reported difficulties in the process, including malfunctioning emergency equipment and difficulty exiting buildings.

Standing on New Jersey Avenue near C Street Southeast shortly before Capitol Police allowed Members and staff to return to their offices, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) commended the law enforcement agency for its “no-nonsense” approach.

At the time the evacuation began, House Members, including LaHood, were taking part in a vote on the floor. “We ran out and the Capitol Police were telling everyone to run away,” LaHood said.

“I think, obviously, the system works,” LaHood said, adding: “It’s a system that was really tested today. A lot of people were evacuated. Within minutes, hundreds of people were down at the end of [New Jersey Avenue] in what could have been a catastrophe.”

The Illinois lawmaker asserted that the process appeared to have improved since June 2004, when an incident involving Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s (R) plane prompted a similar evacuation shortly before the state funeral for former President Ronald Reagan.

Congressional law enforcement officials commended the process: “It went extremely well,” asserted House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who was also on the House floor when the evacuation began, likewise praised the evacuation, noting, “If nothing else, it was a good training drill.”

But the Michigan lawmaker added that communications during such emergencies still need significant improvement.

“What is still lacking is keeping us informed,” he said, adding that the failure creates “a weak link” in the evacuation process.

Ehlers explained that he received only one message on his BlackBerry e-mail device alerting him to the evacuation, but noted that it did not indicate the nature of the emergency. “There is no indication whatsoever what the alert is,” he said. “If the Capitol Police gave some indication, people could take different strategies.”

During a press conference after the incident, Gainer asserted that his department acted effectively to inform Members and staff.

“I think we were putting out a lot of information,” said Gainer, who also offered praise to the department’s rank-and-file officers.

“It’s difficult to exercise this type of scenario,” Gainer acknowledged, and later added: “The police officers acted professionally and did a good job.”

Still, some House employees asserted that the evacuation was laced with problems, including crowded exitways, malfunctioning annunciators — the portable radio devices that alert offices to emergencies — and lack of directions.

“One of the problems is the practice evacuation drills aren’t done under real life conditions,” said one House aide, who asked not to be named. The practice drills, the aide noted, are typically conducted one office building at a time, and during recess periods when buildings are not as crowded with staff and visitors.

The aide also said alarms in the Longworth House Office Building failed to sound during the incident.

Similarly, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) criticized the evacuation process, asserting the process is still confusing for many.

“For all the drills and the training that the Capitol Police and staff have undergone, today we were all still running around, in circles, trying to figure out where to go while the Capitol was at ‘Red Alert.’ We must do better,” Thompson said.

Capitol Police allowed visitors and staff to return to their offices at approximately 12:40 p.m., several minutes after authorities confirmed the suspect aircraft had landed at Frederick, Md.

Both lobbyists and tourists inside the Capitol at the time of the evacuation were also rushed to exits, including Leanne Ziems, who was visiting the Capitol with eighth grade students from St. Anthony’s School in Temperance, Mich.

“We were doing our tour in the Rotunda and they came in and said there was a red alert,” Ziems said. “We followed our tour guide and there were cops telling us to ‘Run, run — move it!’ First we thought it was a drill, but there were people panicking.”

Also in the Capitol was Jeannie Williams of the National Association of Realtors, who was attending a mid-year legislative meeting when the evacuation began.

“It was quite scary. I’ve never seen this Capitol empty out as fast as it did in such an orderly fashion,” said Williams, who has visited the Capitol for 30 years. “We never know when this could be the real McCoy. I saw Senators and Representatives moving out the same way as we did and standing where we were.”

Megan King and John McArdle contributed to this report.