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President not informed during plane evacuation
WASHINGTON -- President Bush and his wife were not relocated -- or even informed -- when many others in the White House were evacuated because of an approaching wayward airplane, his spokesman disclosed Thursday.
FBI officials concluded the pilot made an innocent navigational error when he flew his small plane into restricted airspace Wednesday night, prompting a partial evacuation of the presidential mansion and the scrambling of two F-16s from Andrews Air Force Base.
"It never did reach the point, however, where it was either necessary to either move or even inform the president. He found out this morning," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.
Journalists working in the West Wing were among those ordered to evacuate by Secret Service officers. Fleischer, struggling to explain why one safety standard applied to personnel and another to the president, said Secret Service officers stationed in the West Wing exercised their own discretion when they hustled people out.
"I think it's obvious the president is always kept the most secure person in the White House," Fleischer said. "And again, there was never a threat to the president."
The plane, a single-engine Cessna 182, got as close as four miles from the executive mansion, violating an expanded no-fly zone established after Sept. 11.
The F-16s scrambled to intercept the pilot, who officials said changed course to avoid bad weather Wednesday during a twilight trip from Massachusetts to Raleigh, N.C. The fighter jets did not catch up to him until 11 minutes after he had left the restricted space on his own.
By then, he was near Fredericksburg, Va., and the fighter pilots instructed the Cessna to land in Richmond, Va., according to a timeline compiled by government officials.
A defense official said the plane never made any threatening maneuvers.
Dozens of similar White House airspace violations have occurred in recent weeks, officials said, without any noticeable consequence on the ground.
The difference in Wednesday's episode was that the pilot was nonresponsive when air traffic controllers tried to contact him on emergency frequencies he apparently was not monitoring, said Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin. That was when some security officers decided to start moving people toward the White House gates, he said.
As for the president, "certainly had that flight taken a different path or changed its path, additional procedures would have been activated," Mackin said. "But it didn't come to that."
The pilot and his one passenger were questioned by authorities in Richmond.
"It turned out to be navigational error," said FBI chief division counsel Lawrence Barry of Richmond. "Both the pilot and the passenger were very cooperative. They were not placed in custody."
Their names will not be released because no federal criminal charges will be filed, Barry said. "The FBI is done with this matter."
However, the pilot will face Federal Aviation Administration penalties that could range from a reprimand to revocation of his license after an investigation that is likely to take weeks, FAA spokesman William Shumann said.
The plane, which took off from the Richmond airport Thursday morning, is registered to private pilot John P. Kline and his wife, Kathryn, of St. Johnsville, N.Y.
Mrs. Kline told The Associated Press that they sold the plane last month to Michael Donlon of Mohawk Valley Skydiving, who, in turn, said it was being transported to North Carolina to be modified for jumping. Donlon said he did not know who the pilot was.