Capitol Hill threat level raised

March 12, 2008 6:21:25 PM PDT
A single-engine airplane violated restricted airspace around the nation's capital Wednesday and flew to within six miles of the U.S. Capitol building before being diverted by interceptor aircraft. Security officials raised the threat level for an air attack on the building that houses Congress from yellow to orange, or high threat, and ordered Capitol personnel to prepare to evacuate. The incident was resolved before evacuation was ordered although tourists were turned away for a time. The threat level for an airborne attack on the building was soon returned to yellow (elevated) and later, to green (low), according to police and other officials.

Federal Aviation Administration records show the restricted airspace, known as the air defense identification zone, that encircles Washington about 30 miles from downtown is violated almost once a day.

A propeller-driven Cessna 177, which had taken off from Carroll County airport in north-central Maryland, entered restricted airspace 30 miles north of Washington at 12:12 p.m. EDT at 1,800 feet with no radio, FAA spokesman Hank Price said.

The intruding aircraft reached a point six miles northwest of the Capitol building before being diverted and escorted by interceptor aircraft to Leesburg, Va., airport where it landed at 12:44 p.m., Price added.

Capitol Police Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said the pilot was being interviewed at the Leesburg facility.

Michael Kucharek, a spokesman with North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said two F-16s were scrambled at 12:15 p.m. to intercept the plane as it headed south from Maryland.

A Coast Guard helicopter also was involved in the intercept and escort of the Cessna, according to Lt. Gene Maestas, spokesman for the guard's Mid-Atlantic region.

NORAD also used a low-level laser light that visually warns pilots they are in a restricted area, Kucharek said.

Violations of the restricted zone have been falling steadily since 2003, from nearly three a day to just under one a day, FAA records show. There were 346 violations in 2007, compared with 995 in 2003.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the White House was notified.

"There was an aircraft that entered into the airspace that there was some concern about, but the aircraft turned around," she said. "We are at normal security levels here at the White House."

--- Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.


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