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Air National Guard F-16s respond quickly to stray aircraft

May 12, 2005 (by Lieven Dewitte) - Airmen from the District of Columbia Air National Guard's 121st Fighter Squadron scrambled at noon to intercept the stray Cessna aircraft after it violated airspace restrictions. The incident sparked evacuations at the White House and Capitol.

121st FS friday patch (Jon Somerville collection)

The military's actions when a small private plane strayed into the no-fly zone over the nation's capital area May 11 were "just a normal response" that demonstrates the Air National Guard continues to be "ready to respond at a moment's notice," a member of the unit involved said.

Two F-16 Fighting Falcons took off from Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Customs officials had also scrambled a Black Hawk helicopter and a Cessna Citation jet at 11:47 a.m. to intercept the plane. The Customs aircraft pulled away when the F-16s arrived and tried to park at each wing of the little plane. They dipped their wings - a pilot's signal to "follow me" - and tried to raise the pilot on the radio.

But the Cessna didn't change course, and it was flying too slow for the F-16s. The frustrated pilots had to take turns dropping flares, breaking away and returning to drop more flares.

One senior Bush administration counterterrorism official said it was "a real finger-biting period because they came very close to ordering a shot against a general aircraft."

Finally, when the Cessna came within three miles of the White House - just a few minutes flying time - it altered course.

The threat level at the White House was raised to red -- the highest level -- at 12:03 p.m., before the interception was successful, he said.

By 12:11 p.m., the threat level returned to yellow, and the "all clear" was issued three minutes later, he said.

Sergeant Powell called the interception mission "a standard response" to threats against the U.S. capital.

He said aircraft occasionally stray into the no-fly zone over the national capital area, particularly during sunny days.

The 113th Wing, which includes the 121st Fighter Squadron, has served on rotational duty supporting Operation Noble Eagle since shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sergeant Powell said.

"This is one reason the D.C. area should feel secure," he said. "(Today's reaction) shows we're ready to respond at a moment's notice."