The Courier-Journal July 04, 2004
Details emerge in Fletcher flight's security scare
Radar misread, agencies didn't share key data
By James R. Carroll
WASHINGTON — A balky instrument. Different radar systems. A hazy sky. A busy telephone. And a government contractor who misread radar.
These details, including some new revelations, from interviews and a federal report obtained by The Courier-Journal help explain why Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher's plane caused the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol on June9 — and why four congressional panels are asking: Can the airspace over the capital be protected from terrorists?
Some air traffic controllers knew the identity of Fletcher's aircraft as it flew to President Reagan's funeral, but that information was not passed to federal agencies protecting Washington, according to interviews and a Transportation Security Administration report.
As a result of the confusion, air defense officials scrambled four aircraft — two more than reported at the time — to intercept Fletcher's plane, the report says.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-5th District, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's homeland security subcommittee, said the incident shows the security system is adequate.
But others said it reveals serious problems.
The incident has prompted a joint inquiry by four congressional panels, led by the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. The committees want to explore potential flaws in air defenses that have been built around the capital since the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, 2001. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee has scheduled the first public hearing on the incident for Thursday.
Rogers, of Kentucky, said the incident did expose problems, but they can be corrected.
"Had there been the need to take aggressive action, we had the time," said Rogers, adding that his conclusion is based on briefings he cannot discuss for security reasons.
"This glitch that the governor's plane exposed us to, frankly, is going to turn out to be very helpful," Rogers said. "This problem is (being) fixed."
He also revealed that there were other airspace violations over Washington the same day, but he could not go into detail, also for security reasons.
"It appears that it was entirely the FAA communications that broke down," he said.
But John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit military and security think tank, said the incident uncovered "a number of flaws" in the security network that is supposed to protect Washington.
"This is similar to the connect-the-dots problems that the FBI had before Sept. 11," he said.
Security report focuses on two problems
Fletcher's aircraft was nearly at its destination before confusion over its identity was resolved, which suggests that the "no-fly zone" around Washington isn't large enough, Pike said.
"We're basically in a race with the terrorists on all this stuff — whether we can find vulnerabilities faster than they can," he said, adding that security officials can be sure "there's another one lurking in the system that we don't know about."
The TSA concluded that two key errors contributed to the June 9 event, according to an agency report.
First, air traffic controllers permitted Fletcher's plane to enter restricted airspace with a broken tracking device, called a transponder, the TSA said. A new rule has been issued since then barring planes from restricted airspace if their transponders don't work.
Second, an FAA contractor failed to make a timely connection between radar information that air traffic controllers saw and the less-specific radar data that air defense officials had on Fletcher's plane, the TSA said. A shared radar system is being installed to prevent that from recurring.
The story began Feb. 20, when the Kentucky State Police received a general, six-month waiver permitting the governor's Beechcraft King Air 200, a twin-engine turboprop, to fly in airspace over Washington known as the Flight Restricted Zone, a 15-mile circle around the center of the city.
In addition, Washington is encircled by a larger restricted airspace, the Air Defense Identification Zone, an area with about a 30-mile radius of central Washington.
The waiver to enter the smaller zone also allows an aircraft into the larger zone, according to the FAA.
The waiver required Fletcher's plane to maintain two-way radio communication and have a working transponder, the TSA report says.
Security center unaware of transponder problem
Hours before takeoff, on June 9 at 11:30 a.m., the co-pilot of Fletcher's plane, Kerry Salyers, notified the National Capital Region Coordination Center.
The facility in Herndon, Va., is where federal security agencies jointly monitor Washington airspace. They include the TSA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Secret Service, Coast Guard, several agencies in the Department of Defense, FAA, Capitol Police, Park Police and FBI.
Fletcher's co-pilot provided the center with the proper information about the flight plan and waiver, the TSA report says.
About 3 p.m., Fletcher's aircraft left Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron, Ky., for the 90-minute flight to Washington.
At 3:45 p.m., Capt. Brian Carlisle, the pilot, radioed the FAA's Washington Center to report his plane had an "intermittent transponder," according to the TSA.
That problem should have been mentioned over what is called the Domestic Events Network line, an open telephone link to the coordination center in Herndon, the TSA said. But, the agency said, the FAA did not pass along information about the transponder problem, so the coordination center was unaware of the situation.
Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement radar at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif., showed that Fletcher's plane had no transponder signal, meaning it was unidentified.
The FAA's view
Controllers maintain contact with plane
Within five to seven minutes of reporting the transponder trouble, Carlisle called FAA controllers to say the transponder was again working, according to FAA spokesman Greg Martin.
"That was not entirely correct — it was not transmitting its altitude," Martin said. But controllers knew that, and the flight continued as routine, he said.
Because of the transponder difficulties, controllers discussed the matter each time the plane was handed off to another air traffic control sector as it neared Washington, Martin said.
In addition, the plane's information was typed into the radar system, he said.
With the aircraft about 43 miles from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the security agencies at the coordination center in Herndon were watching the plane on radar, but their display lacked the manually entered data for Fletcher's plane, Martin said.
The coordination center thought it had an unidentified aircraft, he said.
At the FAA's Potomac approach control, in Vint Hill, Va., a specialist working for a private contractor was monitoring the radar for violations of restricted airspace.
According to Martin, the usual way unidentified planes are handled is that Potomac approach control notifies the security agency coordination center.
"This day, the flow of information reversed," he said. The coordination center called FAA approach control, he said.
That differs from the TSA's account in its document on the event.
A different story
Misread radar adds to confusion
According to the TSA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement was the first to alert the FAA and other agencies that the plane was moving into restricted airspace. It was now a "track of interest" in the eyes of the security agencies.
So, the co-pilot of Fletcher's plane had done what was required before the flight, the pilot had reported the transponder problem to the FAA, air traffic controllers were talking with the plane all the way to Washington and the waiver to enter restricted airspace was entered in the approach control computer system.
But still there was confusion.
The FAA's Potomac approach control reported back to the coordination center that it saw nothing on radar where the supposed unidentified plane was reported, according to the TSA account.
According to Martin, the specialist misread what was on the screen: an open square representing the governor's plane, accompanied by the tail number and air speed.
The result was the FAA did not tell the coordination center that it knew the identity of the plane, Martin said.
Martin said the specialist was a former FAA employee "familiar with air traffic procedures."
Hired in December, the specialist had two weeks of classroom training and two weeks of on-the-job training.
The worker is "no longer assigned to an FAA facility," he said.
Eyes in the sky
Helicopter, jet ordered launched, fighters diverted
At 4:25 p.m., the Air Marine Operations Command in California ordered the launch from National airport of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter and a Cessna Citation, similar to a corporate jet, to intercept the Fletcher plane. That was not made public at the time or in the days immediately after the incident.
Neither the helicopter nor the Citation was armed, said Gary Bracken, spokesman for the Office of Air and Marine Operations. And neither craft got far before the alert ended: The helicopter was just airborne and the Citation was still taxiing.
Aboard Fletcher's plane, no one was aware of anything unusual, the governor later told reporters.
The military sent two F-16 fighters to intercept the governor's plane.
Lt. Lisa Citino, spokesman for the 1st Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., said the fighters, based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, were on patrol when they were diverted to Fletcher's plane. In general, jets protecting airspace are supposed to be able to respond anywhere in the sector they are patrolling within 15 minutes, she said.
Under normal rules of engagement, a fighter flies by the suspect plane. The Air Force may shoot flares to get the attention of the other aircraft and attempt to communicate with that plane, Citino said. For security reasons, she declined to say whether the fighters actually intercepted Fletcher's aircraft.
Hazy sky, busy phone
Attempts to identify aircraft are foiled
An FAA liaison at the Herndon coordination center realized the plane would pass about a mile south of Washington Dulles International Airport, about 25 miles west of the capital.
The liaison asked the Dulles air traffic control tower whether it could identify the aircraft as it passed. But controllers noted haze would block their view, according to the TSA.
At 4:30 p.m. the aircraft was 14.4 miles from National airport and about as far from the Capitol.
At 4:31 p.m., the U.S. Capitol Police Command Center, located in a building near the Capitol, ordered the evacuation of the seat of Congress. Also evacuated were congressional office buildings, the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court. U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Contricia Sellers-Ford declined to discuss the notification procedures.
The FAA liaison at the Herndon coordination center noted at 4:33 p.m. that the plane in question was maneuvering in a way "consistent with an aircraft on a visual approach" to National airport. So the liaison phoned that airport tower to ask whether controllers were talking to the plane. But the FAA official couldn't get through because the phone was busy, according to the TSA.
At 4:34 p.m., the FAA in Potomac reported to the various security agencies that it was in radio contact with the "track of interest" and identified the plane by its tail number.
At 4:35 p.m., the radar sweep made its last contact with the governor's plane, which was flying at low altitude down the Potomac. The White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and a panicky Capitol were out the aircraft's left windows, the Pentagon out its right. Ahead was the runway.
At 4:46 p.m., after blaring alarms were turned off in the Capitol and surrounding buildings, and the Capitol Police allowed startled visitors to return to the building.
In the coming hours, more than 100,000 mourners would file quietly past the Reagan bier. Among the first in the Rotunda, as part of the official congressional service, was Kentucky's governor.
© Copyright 2004, The Courier-Journal