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Posted on the Associated Press on April 5, 2002 and at:
Planes often enter prohibited air
By FRANK BASS and JOHN SOLOMON
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Despite military patrols and tighter security, pilots
have intruded into America's protected airspace at least 567 times since
Sept. 11, highlighting the continued challenges of thwarting a terrorist
In each case, a pilot wrongly flew into one of the country's six
prohibited flight zones, where no planes are allowed, or into one of
many restricted zones where air traffic is limited because of sensitive
military or nuclear operations or special events.
The post-Sept. 11 incidents include four commercial jetliners and one
medical helicopter that flew into the forbidden airspace protecting the
White House, Capitol and vice presidential mansion in the nation's
capital, officials said. The most recent incursion occurred this week.
"Practically speaking, by the time a violation is discovered, it is too
late to do anything to prevent a crash into the White House," former FAA
security chief Billie H. Vincent said.
FAA Deputy Administrator Monte R. Belger said Thursday the agency
recognizes there's little time to react once planes penetrate the safety
zone and so the government has imposed numerous other precautions to
ensure planes with ill intent don't get close.
"The restricted area is kind of the last line of defense," Belger said.
"The additional on-the-ground security procedures and in-flight
protocols put in place give us a much higher level of confidence."
Borders have been tightened; pilots, flight crews and passengers are
screened to weed out possible terrorists, and planes approaching
Washington or other prohibited zones must complete authentication
procedures, including providing passwords.
FAA enforcement records obtained by The Associated Press show most
pilots who have violated protected airspace over the past decade usually
walk away with nothing more than a warning letter.
Of the 111 pilots on 94 flights that flew into Washington's no-fly zone
since 1992, just one was fined, for $1,000, and nine had their licenses
suspended for between seven to 120 days, the records show. At least 90
were settled with administrative action -- nearly all of them warning
letters, the analysis showed.
Just a month before the September hijackings, a Mesa Airlines flight
strayed into prohibited airspace over Washington. By November, the
matter was closed with a warning letter to the pilot -- common for most
Between Sept. 11 and March 5, the FAA recorded 567 airspace violations
across the country, ranging from prohibited airspace to special use
zones where only certain planes may fly.
Of that number, 65 involved incursions into major prohibited or
restricted sites. Nineteen of those cases already have been resolved
with no punishment or administrative letters, officials said.
Former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo, who
highlighted airline safety problems in the 1990s and now works as a
lawyer representing airline accident victims, said the small number of
severe punishments amounts to laissez-faire enforcement.
"It is fairly typical. The FAA really doesn't like to do enforcement
actions, particularly any carrier infringement," said Schiavo, a
frequent FAA critic.
FAA officials said they had no plans to stiffen the penalties, unless
the number of incursions keeps growing. They said in most cases pilots
mistakenly intruded the airspace or were blown into it by high winds.
"They generally aren't deliberate. They generally don't reflect poor
skills or poor training," Belger said. "If we do see a situation that is
egregious or reflects a lack of training ... we take appropriate
Planes that violate Washington's prohibited zone are quickly warned by
air traffic controllers to correct course, and the Secret Service is
alerted. Nearly all pilots comply immediately, officials said.
Military planes that patrol the capital skies are permitted to force
such planes to land or, as a last resort, shoot them down if pilots
None of the five planes that flew into the capital's protected space
since Sept. 11 have required such action, officials said.
Washington's Reagan National airport was closed for more than a month
after the attacks, and has been gradually reopened to traffic since
despite reservations by the Secret Service.
One pilot died when he crashed his small plane into the White House in
September 1994; no one else was harmed. In 1999, a pilot drifted so
close to the White House that agents fired a warning flare. That pilot
ended up with a warning letter, FAA records show.
The five most recent airspace violations are still being investigated,
including a Frontier Airlines 737 jet that flew over the White House and
vice presidential residence on Monday before correcting its path. That
pilot has been grounded with pay pending the outcome of the
FAA records show violators of Washington's airspace over the past decade
include about three dozen pilots for major commercial airlines, one Air
Force pilot, a NASA pilot, a handful of private or foreign pilots and
several air transport companies.
One pilot caught in Washington's prohibited airspace blamed air traffic
controllers, saying they are so busy they sometimes order flight
maneuvers that send pilots into the prohibited zone.
"The D.C. controllers are absolutely horrible. Washington National is
absolutely the worst place to fly into, period," said Happy Wells, a
30-year veteran pilot from Oklahoma who was cited in July 1997 for
flying his charter plane through Washington's prohibited zone.
Wells said his proposed penalty was rescinded after he filed a report
with the FAA.
Outside Washington, there are five other prohibited zones: President
Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas; the Bush family compound in
Kennebunkport, Maine; the presidential retreat at Camp David in
Thurmont, Md.; the Pantex nuclear assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas; and
the area around George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Va.
Elsewhere, there are numerous permanent and temporary restricted zones
across the country. They cover military and nuclear sites, special
events like the Winter Olympics in Utah and the Super Bowl in New
Orleans, or places like New York and Boston where threats have prompted
Since many restricted areas are temporary, FAA notifies pilots through a
monthly publication. Over the past month, for example, the agency has
warned pilots to stay out of certain areas such as a zone surrounding an
auto race in Talladega, Ala., areas hosting aerial demonstrations by the
Navy Blue Knights and Air Force Thunderbirds; and parts of Alaska where
the officials are setting off pre-emptive avalanches.