White House evacuated during small plane scare
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 got as close as four miles from the executive mansion, said Secret Service agent Brian Marr. Authorities said the plane made belated contact with the tower at Reagan National Airport.
President Bush had returned just 20 minutes earlier from a Republican fund-raiser when some staff and reporters were ordered to leave the building shortly after 8 p.m. EDT.
Bush remained in the executive mansion 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 left.
The incident occurred only hours after staff at the Federal Reserve, including Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, were evacuated from the building on nearby Constitution Avenue after a suspicious package was found in a garbage bin. Police cordoned off several blocks, snarling 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 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.
Two F-16 military jets were scrambled immediately and 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.
"Two F-16s were scrambled," said Petty Officer Beverly Allen of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. "The guy flew out of Gardner, Mass., airspace. .... We escorted the guy to Richmond Airport where authorities apprehended him."
"This just looks like a pilot that had no clue he was entering restrictive airspace," said Marr, the Secret Service agent.
Gardner, the pilot's point of origin, is a city of about 21,000 in central Massachusetts about 50 miles west of Boston. The plane was headed for Raleigh, N.C.
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 attack on New York and Washington.
On Sept. 12, 1994 a man flying a stolen Cessna airplane fatally crashed on the South Lawn of the White House.