White House briefly evacuated

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Associated Press WriterRICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- A pilot who flew a small plane into restricted White House airspace, prompting the building's evacuation, made an innocent error and will not face federal charges, an FBI official said Thursday.

The pilot, who officials said changed course to avoid bad weather Wednesday during a twilight trip from Massachusetts to Raleigh, N.C., was escorted by roaring F-16s all the way to the ground at Richmond International Airport.

"It turned out to be navigational error," FBI chief division counsel Lawrence Barry of Richmond said Thursday. "Both the pilot and the passenger were very cooperative. They were not placed in custody."

The names of the pilot and the passenger will not be released because no federal criminal charges will be filed, Barry said.

"The FBI is done with this matter," he said.

The White House was evacuated for 15 minutes after the small plane entered restricted airspace, but President Bush stayed, protected by unspecified security procedures, officials said.

The plane got as close as four miles from the executive mansion, said Secret Service agent Brian Marr. The evacuation was called off when the Cessna 182 changed direction and the pilot contacted the tower at Reagan National Airport.

Troy Bell, spokesman for the Richmond airport authority, said it was his understanding the pilot's story of avoiding bad weather checked out. He said the pilot might be charged with an aviation infraction. Federal Aviation Administration officials did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on that possibility.

Bush had returned from a Republican fund-raiser just 20 minutes earlier when staff and reporters were ordered to leave the executive mansion shortly after 8 p.m.

A man hurried through the White House press area saying, "Get out, get out, everybody out. Secret Service says everyone has to leave the building."

Some White House staffers stayed with the president.

The pilot started his flight at a small airport in Gardner, Mass., and did not make required contact as he approached Washington, officials said.

The plane approached from the northeast above the nation's capital at 10,500 feet, well below the minimum 18,000 feet required for the restricted space, federal aviation officials said. The restriction applies to a 15-mile radius around Reagan National Airport.

"This just looks like a pilot that had no clue he was entering restrictive airspace," Marr said.

The incident came just hours after staff at the Federal Reserve, including Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, were evacuated when a suspicious package was found in a garbage bin. Police cordoned off several blocks, but the package proved harmless.

The 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 terrorist attacks.

Four commercial airliners and a medical helicopter have crossed into prohibited airspace protecting the White House since Sept. 11, Federal Aviation Administration officials say. Pilots have flown through the restricted space at least 94 times over the past decade.

On Sept. 12, 1994, a man flying a stolen Cessna died when he crashed on the South Lawn of the White House.

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