Would a Fighter Pilot Shoot Down a Private Airplane?

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

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

No city, not even New York, has the level of protection afforded to Washington. The nation’s capital boasts two concentric rings of restricted air traffic. The outer one is (or was) called the ADIZ, for Air Defense Identification Zone, which after a bit of pulling and tugging is now a simple circle of 30 miles radius with Reagan Washington National Airport at the center. Just as aviators were getting used to the term ADIZ, the government changed its name in 2008 to SFRA—Special Flight Rules Area. Whatever you call it, in order to fly there, pilots have to file a flight plan with the FAA and obtain a four-digit transponder code for communications with controllers.

The inner, 15-mile circle around Washington is the Flight Restricted Zone, or “Freeze.” Three general aviation airports are still in business within the FRZ, but all pilots flying within the zone must be pre-certified. At Reagan National this involves finger-printing and background checks. Then there is the dreaded P-40, a circle around Camp David, the president’s retreat, 65 miles north of Washington, that is normally three miles in radius but expands to 10 miles when the president—or POTUS (president of the United States), as they call him in the bunker at Rome—is there. The FAA also regularly issues TFRs, or Temporary Flight Restrictions, most commonly linked to a POTUS visit to another part of the country. These are broadcast by NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen, a sexist holdover), which every pilot is theoretically required to consult before he or she takes to the air.

All the new regulations have collided head-on, metaphorically speaking, with the prevailing “Don’t tread on me” culture of general aviation, in which pilots cherish their airplanes as an embodiment of personal freedom. At Maryland Airport, a grass strip surviving among suburban McMansions in the town of Indian Head, just south of the FRZ, co-owner Gil Bauserman delivers a lengthy harangue against the federal “Gestapo” that terrorizes innocent fliers and is burying his business in red tape. “We had a retired Navy captain who lost electrical [power] and got intercepted because he couldn’t talk on the radio,” he recounts. “All of a sudden you have people jumping out of a Blackhawk helicopter with M-16s and the Indian Head sheriff’s department taking him down to interrogate him.”

The new rules are oppressive in subtler ways too, says Bauserman, who shoots the breeze in the airport’s haphazardly furnished office with his father and son, who are also his business partners. “So-called intentional violation of the SFRA is a felony,” he rails. “That means a lot of our customers, who are government or military employees, could lose their jobs. But how often does somebody drive down the road and take a wrong turn?”

The testy rhetoric is harmless enough. But could a misunderstanding between defenders and aviators one day turn tragic, with some combination of failed equipment, pilot cluelessness, and itchy fingers in the Air Force leading to the death of a harmless hobbyist and collateral damage to anything in his flight path?

Military commanders acknowledge that there are specific triggers for destroying civilian aircraft, but they will not disclose them. Presumably they involve several factors, from type of aircraft to flight path to behavior of the pilot. “There are very detailed rules of engagement to which we train on a routine basis,” Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, told the Defense Writers Group in 2005. He stressed that any decision to fire would not be made by the pursuing military pilots or their immediate handlers at Rome. “The authority to shoot down a civilian aircraft is delegated to a very small number of very senior officials, civilian and military, within the Department of Defense,” McHale said.

The GAO’s D’Agostino assumes the circle is smaller still. “It would have to be the president or the Sec Def making the decision,” she says, employing Beltway-speak for the Secretary of Defense. “The U.S. military does not relish the thought of shooting down civilians.”

Last spring’s five-hour pursuit of the intruding Canadian shows the forbearance of the nation’s airborne defenders, and the wealth of information they can access quickly about a pilot’s background and even state of mind. While the F-16s stuck with the aircraft, the FAA went to work identifying the violator from his tail number. He went by both his original Turkish name, Yavuz Berke, and the Anglicized Adam Dylan Leon. At one point, the FAA brought in an FBI hostage negotiator to try (in vain) to talk the pilot down. Unnamed intelligence agencies cobbled together a quick psychiatric profile. Last August, the 31-year-old pleaded guilty to stealing an airplane and entering the United States illegally and was sentenced to two years in federal prison.

About Craig Mellow

Craig Mellow, a freelance journalist who lives in Savannah, Georgia, has written for Air & Space from Russia, Western Europe, and the United States.

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