F-16 pilot: Intercept 'a difficult period'
Air National Guard Lt. Col. Tim Lehmann
A top Pentagon official on making the decision to shoot down a plane.
The response following the D.C. airspace security breach.
Key buildings evacuated as plane enters restricted airspace.
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(CNN) -- A small Cessna airplane flew into restricted airspace over Washington on Wednesday putting the capital on high alert. When federal officials were unable to contact the pilot, two F-16s were scrambled to intercept the plane.
CNN's Kyra Phillips spoke with Lt. Col. Tim Lehmann, one of the two Air National Guard F-16 pilots who responded to the unauthorized aircraft.
PHILLIPS: First of all, Colonel, great to have you with us. We appreciate you talking to us. Why don't you tell us how it all began yesterday?
LEHMANN: I'd be happy to, Kyra. I actually was just about finishing my lunch when our alert klaxon went off. And we ran to the jet, and all of our F-16s, which you see in the background, are hot-cocked, and that means all their switches are ready to go. So we jumped in the airplane quickly and we rolled very quickly and are in the air. I can tell you that yesterday we were in the air at 11:57, to begin our intercept.
PHILLIPS: And of course, this is exactly what you train for, Colonel. Now you had the real deal. There was a plane apparently headed toward the White House in restricted airspace. What was going through your mind at the time?
LEHMANN: Well, Kyra, first off, as I raised the gear, I was happy to be flying for that day, as most fighter pilots are. So I was -- I was glad to get in the air.
And immediately we had a radar contact with our target of interest, and the FAA, air traffic control here in Washington, D.C., it's in Potomac; they did an excellent job vectoring us on to the target of interest.
As we intercepted it, we were about 12 miles north of Washington, D.C., north of the capital, and the intercept went well. As we intercepted it, there were some customs aircraft already on the wing of this particular aircraft. And we executed procedures, where the customs aircraft will pull away from our target of interest, and then we took over the intercept at that point.
PHILLIPS: Of course, when we talk about target of interest, we're talking about that Cessna, the pilot that was flying that plane into restricted airspace.
When did you finally get the pilot's attention? I know you gave off all the visual signals. You even dropped the flares. At what point did the pilot finally respond to you and you were able to develop communications?
LEHMANN: Well, Kyra, that was a difficult period. We were authorized to dispense flares. And I was the first one to pass that aircraft and dropping flares. When I did so, we did not get a response. The aircraft continued on its southward heading, toward our nation's capital.
We operate as two ships, and while I went past him -- because I can't fly slow enough to stay on the wing of this aircraft, we spin and we have about three miles between myself and the other F-16. So we will orchestrate, if you will, an oval, a rotating oval, around the target of interest.
I went by first, dropped flares. It -- the TOI [target of interest] did not respond. And then the other F-16 went past. He dropped flares, as well. Still, we do not get a response from the TOI.
It wasn't until the third time we went past and dropped flares, that seemed to get his attention. And I believe at that point, the TOI realized, hey, something -- something is definitely wrong here. And that's when he changed his course.
PHILLIPS: And when did you actually talk to him? Was it after you dropped the flares that you were able to engage in conversation on the guard frequency, on the emergency frequency?
LEHMANN: That's exactly right, Kyra. The track of interest had turned to a westbound heading and it was then that we were able to contact him on a VHF guard frequency, and we spoke to the pilot. And other agencies ... are gaining radio contact with him at that time, and he was instructed to proceed to Frederick.
PHILLIPS: So what did you say to him, Colonel, and how did he respond? Did he seem nervous? Did he seem confused? Was he cooperative with you?
LEHMANN: Well, Kyra, it was actually the other F-16 pilot who spoke to him, Major Oxneed (ph), and he said the pilot was very nervous, somewhat shaken, but still able to communicate. And he said, "OK, I understand. We're directed to go to Frederick and land." And he complied with those instructions.
PHILLIPS: All right, Colonel, I want to point something out and be very specific here, because a lot of questions were asked yesterday in the White House briefing, a lot of reporters asking, did you get the shoot down order, you know, were you told to shoot down this aircraft if he didn't respond?
Now it never got to that point. You did not get that call or that instruction from NORAD or from the president, because you deemed that this was not a threat. It was not in the attack profile. Explain to our viewers why you didn't have to shoot that aircraft down.
LEHMANN: Well, Kyra, the national capital region is defended with a layered defense. And as a target of interest turns up on the radar scope, decisions are already being made as to whether we consider this a high threat, medium threat or low threat.
And those decisions are being made at a national command authority level, a very high level of the military chain of command and civilian chain of command. And as they assessed this aircraft, relatively light aircraft, they did not accept it as a high threat-type of environment. So that order was never given to shoot it down.
The one thing I think the American public should understand, that there is a layered defense around our nation's capital. We are not the only ones who can engage and bring down tracks of interest.
And I'd like to assure your listeners that that airplane would not have penetrated -- it would not have hit anything in D.C. And it would have been dropped from the sky before that would have happened.
PHILLIPS: Point well made. And you know, I have to ask you this Colonel. Aside from this incident, you do train specifically to shoot an aircraft down if the command is given. Thank goodness it wasn't given in this case. But if you had to do it, are you ready for that, and mentally, how do you prepare yourself to do that?
LEHMANN: Well, Kyra, we rely on our training. And our training prepares us very well for that moment. And heaven forbid, if that moment ever occurs. I don't -- I certainly never wish for that to occur. But my squadron, we stand ready to defend our nation's capital as necessary whenever it is necessary. So if I am directed by a higher authority, I will execute that mission.