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An F-16 with the Arizona National Guard. (162nd Fighter Wing)

Would a Fighter Pilot Shoot Down a Private Airplane?

Interceptions over restricted airspace—mostly of innocent civilians—are more common than you’d think

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The unnerving part of the intercept picture is that, for all the whiz-bang technology at EADS, making judgments about objects in the sky while sitting on the ground still involves plenty of guesswork. The FAA’s Miller reports that more than once Andrews F-16s have scrambled to arrest flocks of birds, particularly during autumn migrations.

Lt. Col. Paul Bishop, one of the EADS officers who take turns commanding 15 or so Air Force personnel in the LED-lit war room at Rome, recalls dispatching warplanes to intercept a speeding tractor-trailer on Interstate 90 in western New York state. EADS had picked up the truck on its radar scopes. On another occasion, F-16s were dispatched to a Temporary Flight Restriction zone set up to protect a space shuttle launch, and discovered a runaway Mylar balloon.

Less comically, the FAA shut down National Airport last winter and alerted the military that an unidentified “ultralight aircraft” from the west was approaching it and the nearby Pentagon. The threat turned out to be a group of George Washington University students launching a hang glider in poor visibility at dusk.

On other occasions, officials have been slow to react. When a pair of Northwest Airlines pilots infamously overshot the Minneapolis airport by 150 miles last October—distracted by working on their laptops, they claimed—jet fighters were on standby, but never ordered into the air. Military officials said later that the FAA delayed notifying them.

What’s certain is that even people who should know better continue to do stupid things in airplanes. Scouring his screens on an otherwise uneventful morning at EADS, Roberts spots an aircraft off the coast of Louisiana. There’s something wrong: The airplane is using the generic transponder code 1200, forbidden in restricted flight zones—like this one, used for military maneuvers. If the situation isn’t resolved in, literally, a minute, Bishop says he will have to declare an “unknown” and clear the room of non-essential personnel. But then the careless military pilot corrects his error.

A more obdurate intruder speeding toward Capitol Hill or Orlando, rather than wandering aimlessly around the Midwest, would force authorities to make choices quickly. A humble Cessna 172 can fly up to 140 mph, so from first breach of Washington’s outer 30-mile security zone, the pilot could hit the Capitol or White House in less than 15 minutes. Even if the POTUS is not banqueting with foreign dignitaries and the Sec Def is not playing racquetball, neither would have much time to make one of the most important decisions of their lives.

The bureaucratic flow chart for handling such emergencies looks more suited to lengthy debate than quick judgment calls. At least half a dozen federal agencies—the Department of Defense, the FAA, the Transportation Security Administration, Customs, the Secret Service, and the FBI—would have to consult in either of two electronic forums: the Domestic Events Network or the National Capital Region Coordination Center. The GAO report found one small problem: None of them was designated the lead agency.

When the auditors suggested to Congress that someone be put in charge, the Pentagon, straining English as only it can, “nonconcurred.” Each agency has its own role to play, the defense department argued, and should not take a back seat to another for even 15 minutes. The military did fix other glitches identified by the GAO, like getting top FAA officials clearances so that NORAD software would not lock them out of kill-or-no-kill discussions. But the DEN and NCRCC remain leaderless to this day.

Frontline defenders of the skies seem slightly less reluctant than their commanders to pull the trigger in ambivalent circumstances. The crew members at EADS were pained by their inability to prevent the September 11 attacks, even though at the time monitoring domestic air traffic was not an Air Force mission. The welcome video shown to Rome’s rare visitors dwells in almost lurid detail on the terrible events at the World Trade Center. The staff is grimly determined never, ever, to let anything of the kind happen again. “If the order comes to terminate one of these situations, I want to be the one in the chair,” Roberts says. “Any of us would. That’s what we’re trained for.”

“We try to scale back the DoD,” says the FAA’s Miller. “They like to be forward.”

Even military intercept missions that never come to the point of shooting can be dangerous, according to some civilians. “Having an F-16 fly past a GA plane and fire flares is a good way to start a fire,” says David Wartofsky, co-owner of Potomac Airfield, one of the general aviation strips still operating within the FRZ.

Maryland Airport’s Bauserman claims to have witnessed a near-collision between a Coast Guard helicopter and a Piper Cherokee 140 it was escorting to the ground (the Cherokee’s pilot happened to work at the Transportation Security Administration). “The helicopter was in the Cherokee’s path when it made a left turn to land, and the helicopter pilot had to fly underneath it to get out of its way,” Bauserman recalls.

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