Don't Cross That Line
Would a fighter pilot shoot down a private airplane?
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, March 2010
USAF/SRA Dennis Young
(Page 2 of 5)
Failing to raise the off-course Cessna 172 on the radio, the F-16s tried to get the pilot’s attention: firing flares in front of the renegade aircraft and flashing their landing lights. When the Cessna came within five miles of downtown Madison, the governor, on the recommendation of the Wisconsin homeland security advisor, ordered the state capitol building evacuated.
The Missouri state troopers who arrested Adam Leon reported he was trying to commit suicide. “If he had turned toward Chicago, he would have gotten his wish,” says Gary Miller of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Tactical Operations Security, who monitored the slow chase. “That’s the closest we’ve ever come to shooting down somebody on my watch.”
Just 18 days later, Maine retiree William Wales, flying down to see his daughter in North Carolina, strayed over Washington, D.C.’s restricted zone. Though repeatedly hailed on emergency frequencies by F-16s, he failed to respond, prompting a lock-down at the White House, preparations to evacuate the Capitol, and frayed nerves at EADS, whose staff flagged the incident to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado and braced for an order to fire. “Everything looked to be going against this man for a while,” says Air Force Master Sergeant Michael Roberts, who was directing the interceptors from his chair in Rome that day. Wales finally saved himself when a Coast Guard helicopter flew by with a light board, a sort of neon sign, ordering him to call a certain radio frequency. He did, and was escorted to an airstrip out of harm’s way.
Last September, NORAD sent F-16s after a Mooney M20M that lost contact with controllers over Michigan and subsequently crashed near Muncie, Indiana. Military officials reported that the hobby pilot was apparently unconscious in his cockpit. He died in the crash.
Some people might say that sending a $15 million fighter designed to outduel Soviet MiGs to interdict an off-course Piper Cherokee is using an awfully big hammer to hit a pretty small nail. These days, terrorism experts do not rank kamikaze attacks by general aviation airplanes high on their list of concerns. “You could do more damage with a Ryder truck full of fertilizer,” says James Jay Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. When domestic airspace does need to be protected, other tools are more appropriate, he says, from helicopters to ground-based weapons.
Interceptions by military jets are not cheap. Flying an F-16 for an hour costs the taxpayer $1,711, according to John Salvador, head of the Civil Air Patrol’s Missions Directorate. Not to mention the hours of practice beforehand. A major focus of F-16 pilots’ interception training is learning to slow their high-performance jets enough to read the tail numbers on pleasure craft going one-fifth their speed.
But few complain about the cost. Since 9/11, the U.S. government has been in no mood to take chances in the sky, or assume suicide pilots won’t destroy their targets. “A little Cessna with 250 pounds of explosives behind the pilot is all it would take to ruin Washington’s day,” growls the FAA’s Miller, mindful of the psychological as well as the physical effect that such a crash might have.
So, as the nation clamored for security after the attacks nine years ago, the Department of Defense launched Operation Noble Eagle, to expand its zone of protection from the U.S. border to the entire domestic sky. Pilots at Andrews and other bases across the land started drilling in deceleration and tail-number-reading. The FAA cordoned off protected air pockets over such potential targets as Disneyland and NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The rules aren’t always absolute. The FAA “strongly advises” pilots to avoid flying over power plants, dams, and refineries “to the extent practicable.” A short list of flat no-fly areas within the United States includes the houses of both ex-President Bushes, in Crawford, Texas, and Kennebunkport, Maine, and the Pantex nuclear assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas.