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Close Call Over D.C. Airspace

Aired May 11, 2005 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We've got a busy night here, too, from Anderson -- or from Washington, D.C.
Good evening, everyone.

We join you here after a day on high alert, nerves still frayed after this small Cessna plane came within three miles of the White House. Here on Capitol Hill, despite the calm, there are still extra police and a heightened state of security.

Authorities believe the Capitol building is one of our country's top targets for terrorists. And at high noon today, the security precautions got a very real and very scary test. The Capitol itself, the congressional office buildings around it, including the Cannon Building, where I am tonight, plus the White House and Supreme Court, were all evacuated. A small plane, apparently by accident, intruded into the no-fly zone around the city, as I mentioned a little bit earlier on, coming within just three miles of the heart of our government.

In a moment, I'm going to be speaking with the top colonel from NORAD -- that is the agency in charge our defending our skies -- about how close they came, those F-16s in the air, to shooting down the plane. It left us with some incredible pictures. And everyone's story is interesting.


TERRANCE GAINER, U.S. CAPITOL POLICE CHIEF: We began the evacuation of the Capitol at about four minutes after 12:00. It took us about five or six minutes to entirely empty the Capitol.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The chair will recess. The chair stands in recess.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We just had finished the vote and we heard all this yelling. And I didn't know what -- at first, you just thought it was somebody screaming about some way we voted. And then you saw everyone just evacuate, yelling to everyone to get to union station.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go. Let's go. Move.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: I was in my office doing an online chat with a small school in Vermont, something I do two or three times a week. And one of the little kids decided to ask a question. And I typed in, I said, they're evacuating the Capitol. It was sort of like what? I said, they're evacuating. We have to leave.

REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), MAJORITY LEADER: At the time of the evacuation, Mr. Speaker, the House of Representatives was in the midst of a roll call. And the House chamber was ordered cleared in the middle of that vote.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Keep going. Keep going.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: I am so confident that we have the best police force in the world here on Capitol Hill. Every day, we see them standing around the doors. And they don't appear to be working real hard. But it is on days like this that they earn their pay over and over again.

GAINER: We didn't know what it was. The whole air defense system in Washington is set up to keep people out who aren't supposed to be in the airspace.

BERNARD SHAW, FORMER CNN ANCHOR: I was standing outside the carport. And I looked up because I heard these roaring jets. What I saw were two F-16 jets. And they were circling overhead, circling a single-engine plane. And the jet fighter pilots were banking very quickly and I saw them fire two warning flares in the direction of this single-engine plane. This plane continued on a track I would guess southeast.

JIM NICOPOULOS, RESTAURANT OWNER: I was standing outside when I heard the F-16s fly by and then, five minutes later, people being cleared out of the White House, everybody scrambling from the restaurant down the street, Cosi, coming up our way. We're out -- and you see the Secret Service making a perimeter all of a sudden, and very exciting for us.


ZAHN: Not so exciting for the folks who were in control of trying to defend the airspace for America. Those folks of course are from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

And joining me now from Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida is NORAD Spokesman Colonel Keith Snyder.

Good of you to join us tonight. Welcome, sir.

How close did NORAD come to shooting down that Cessna today?

COL. KEITH SNYDER, NORAD SPOKESMAN: We followed the standard procedures in all of these events.

Today, the assessment was made by the pilot and relayed fairly quickly through the military command chain up through the NCA that this aircraft was a small single-engine Cessna type of aircraft. The concern wasn't very high on it at that point. Now the object was, could we make this airplane depart the airspace? And that's what the pilots that did a great job at Andrews today, that's what they were able to do.

ZAHN: How do they quickly make an assessment, besides the size of the plane, that this particular plane posed no threat, even though it had gone within three miles of the White House?

SNYDER: Right.

Well, obviously, the fighters were on this track on this airplane earlier than that. Initially, there was no response. They tried some other maneuvers. There was still no response. Finally, they really got the pilot's attention when they used flares, you know, one of the steps that we take in any situation. And that was effective today. And clearly we were able at that point to affect the pilot's decision- making process and get him out of the airspace.

We have an integrated air defense up in the national capital region. It is multilayered and consists of multiple agencies. And as you saw today, we were able to assess it. And the command authorities today decided that he was not a threat. And they made the right decision.

ZAHN: I guess, Colonel, what I'm having trouble understanding tonight is how you can have a student pilot on this plane and his teacher and they somehow miss the message of the Black Hawk helicopter hovering overhead and then an F-16 on each side of the plane. How do you miss what that is supposed to mean?

SNYDER: Well, it's very important for all the pilots that fly in the national capital region to understand the notices to airmen that the FAA publishes on a daily basis to warn them of the restricted airspace and to know where that restricted airspace is at all times. It is up to the pilots to understand where and where they can't go under those conditions.

ZAHN: How long did it take to scramble the jets once the FAA realized that this plane had gone into restricted airspace?

SNYDER: The aircraft at Andrews are on 15-minute strip alert. Those airplanes were off in under that time. And, like I said earlier, they did a great job of getting out to that air encounter and were very, very timely.

ZAHN: So, that's the expected turnaround and they did the job exactly the way they were supposed to do it, under time?

SNYDER: Absolutely. Absolutely. They're professionals up there. Their concern is for safety and security when they go fly those missions, and, today, the crews showed that to the nation. And they did a very nice job with it.

ZAHN: Finally, Colonel Snyder, hundreds of planes, we are told, have gone into restricted airspace, small planes of this variety, since 9/11. Why was today's situation different? Why the scramble and not the scramble in other cases?

SNYDER: Well, today's situation, the pilot of that airplane initially wasn't very cooperative, from the reports that I've been told. So, it took them a while to get his attention to be able to maneuver him out of the national capital region.

In a lot of cases, the pilots immediately recognize when that fighter comes by that they're probably doing something they shouldn't and are very cooperative very quickly in getting out of the way. And I think, clearly, the closer that that aircraft gets to the downtown D.C. area, it triggers lots of other alerts for other air agency partners, as you saw today.

ZAHN: Colonel Snyder, thank you so much for your time. And thank you for helping us better understand how quickly this all came together today.

Again, good of you to join us.

And just about a half-hour after the evacuation orders went out in Washington, the plane that caused the red alert landed safely in Frederick, Maryland, about 40 miles north of Washington. The two men on board, identified as pilot Jim Sheaffer and student pilot Troy Martin were taken into custody by Maryland State Police and then turned over to the FBI and Secret Service for questioning.

Justice correspondent Kelli Arena joins me from the update desk with the very latest on what has been learned about these two men.

Hi, Kelli.


The bottom line is that both the Secret Service and FBI have determined that this was an accident. They say that the -- both men were searched. The plane was searched. The men were interviewed. Background checks were done. And they have determined that it was pilot error and that there was a radio communications problem, according to some law enforcement sources that we spoke to.

But both men have been released. They've been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. No charges will be sought against them. Now the process is in the hands of the FAA. And officials there will have to decide whether they'll impose any civil fines and whether they'll take any action to either revoke or suspend Jim Sheaffer's pilot license.

ZAHN: Kelli, I don't know whether you heard what Colonel Snyder just had to say out of NORAD, but at first his pilots felt that these two pilots of this plane were not being cooperative. Is that because of the situation with the radio or do we know if they simply didn't want to respond?

ARENA: Well, what we have been told by law enforcement is that they had a portable radio on board that was either malfunctioning or that they did not know how to properly work.

We were not given any indication that these two men were being belligerent, that they were testing law enforcement. There was a lot of confusion, we were told. They weren't exactly sure how to respond at the time. But a lot of the details of what they said in those interviews have not been released, Paula.

ZAHN: I've heard, Kelli, a number of pilots being quoted saying, you can't simply throw these guys in jail for either being stupid or oblivious.

But given the magnitude of what they did today, are you surprised they were simply released?

ARENA: No. There was a lot of work that went in. They were not only interviewed, but their names were run through criminal databases and terror databases. There were interviews done at the airport with people who knew them, associates, people who let them take the plane out in the first place. They were both interviewed separately. As I said, searches were conducted.

So, by the time that these two men were released, law enforcement knew just about everything there was to know about them. And they were pretty confident that there wasn't -- that they weren't planning on doing anything wrong.

ZAHN: And, as you mentioned earlier on, Kelli, we know that one pilot was a student pilot and the other pilot was an experienced pilot. Is it possible he had no idea about the confines of this restricted space?

LAUER: Well, according to everyone we spoke to, no. They knew. As a matter of fact, CNN got an opportunity to speak with Troy Martin's dad, who said that he was discussing the very topic of restricted airspace just the night before and said that he was very concerned about it, as a matter of fact.

But he said, even though he knew his son was concerned, he was very surprised to hear that it was Troy who was making the news today. Here is what he said a little bit earlier.


MEL MARTIN, TROY MARTIN'S FATHER: When I heard it come across the news, I never even thought that it was him. And then, even, they said, two pilots from Smoketown. And so I was going to call his wife and say, hey, there is going to be excitement in Smoketown, because somebody from Smoketown got into the no-fly area, never thinking it was my son. And then I called my wife to tell her, and she says, it was Troy.


ARENA: His dad, his dad was surprised, even though his son had told him that he was very concerned about that no-fly zone the night before.

ZAHN: Just a quick confirmation, though. But what they can have waiting for them on the other side is either having their license suspended or fined, right?

ARENA: Paula, I'm sorry. I'm not hearing you at all. ZAHN: OK.

I was just going to have Kelli reinforce for all us tonight that the one thing that these two pilots do face is the possibility of a stiff fine from the FAA or potentially having their license suspended. As we talked to a number of pilots tonight, they say pilots live in fear of the latter. They're willing to pay the $1,000 or $2,000 fine, but they really don't want to give up their licenses.

Kelli Arena, thanks so much for the update.

Coming up, we're going to down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, where everyone got a lot more excitement than they expected to.

And a little bit later on, the view from the cockpit, including the signals that are supposed to keep pilots from flying into trouble.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Outside to your right, folks.



ZAHN: And welcome back to Washington, D.C.

It was a frightening flashback to 9/11 today at one minute past noon. That's when the evacuation order went out at the White House. And staffers and journalists, like our own Suzanne Malveaux, were ordered to run.

And Suzanne joins me now with the latest from the White House.

Hi, Suzanne.


It started, of course, as a normal day. We were in our basement office here at the White House. But we definitely perked up when we heard something unusual in one of the monitors. We heard that there was some sort of commotion or activity that was going on outside. I grabbed my press I.D. and my cell phone, headed out of the building. And that is when we discovered what was going on.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on. Let's go. Let's go.

MALVEAUX (voice-over): The scene at the White House turned from calm to chaotic in an instant.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're going to out the Northwest Gate. MALVEAUX: I stepped outside the White House Briefing Room to find emergency response teams with their guns drawn, yelling at me to get back inside the building or get off the grounds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Folks, you have to get off the grounds now.

MALVEAUX: I immediately got on my cell phone and called in.

One of the Secret Service agents told me, run. This is no joke. Leave the grounds. They were they were poised with their guns.

Vice President Dick Cheney's motorcade whisked him away. It was a full-scale evacuation. As I was heading to the Northwest Gate, an agent told me a plane had violated restricted airspace and was heading our way. I heard a fighter jet roar overhead.

President Bush was already off the grounds on a bicycle ride 16 miles away. But Mrs. Bush and former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who had been visiting, were at the White House and had to be ushered to a secure bunker on site.

(on camera): Within a four-minute window, the alert level at the White House shot from yellow to orange to red, as security officials tracked the fast-approaching plane. Later, we learned it came within three miles of the White House.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): We were ordered to keep moving across Pennsylvania Avenue through Lafayette Park. It was all over in 15 minutes, as Secret Service agents waved and called for the all-clear. White House and Secret Service officials said the evacuation went according to plan, although some members of the press corps said they weren't notified of the security scare. Motorcades carrying the president and vice president returned to the White House. And we returned to our cameras.

(on camera): Well, Wolf, it is all rather calm right now, after quite a bit of commotion.

(voice-over): But several hours later, when Mr. Bush was himself in front of the cameras, he refused to answer any questions about the scare.

QUESTION: Was a shoot-down order given?

MALVEAUX: Including whether he considered giving an order to shoot the plane down if it had come too close to the building.


MALVEAUX: The protocol set up at the White House does not require the president's authority to do that. But we have been told by White House officials that the president, since he was never in any danger, since people here were being evacuated and taken care of at the White House, that he was not notified until after his bike ride, after the incident was all over -- Paula.

ZAHN: Suzanne, what is the explanation for that? A lot of people are scratching their heads tonight. They don't understand why the president wouldn't have been notified while this was happening.

MALVEAUX: They give three reasons. White House officials say, first, since he was off site, he was never in any danger. Secondly they say they believe that the protocols were in place and that they worked, so that the people here were secure. At least they were taking care of them as best that they could.

And third, of course, they say that it does not require presidential authority. If in fact that plane got so close to the White House, they felt it was a danger and it had to be shot down, that someone else in the administration certainly could have made that call. They decided, taking all three factors into account, that they would wait until after his bike ride, after it was over . And then they alerted the president as to what had happened.

ZAHN: Suzanne Malveaux, thank you for helping us better understand that.

The security scare here in Washington had a very definite ripple effect on the financial markets in New York. We have a chart tracking the ups and downs of the Dow Jones Industrial Average today. There was this big spike down, as you can see here, when news of the evacuations hit and just as big a jump as soon as the all-clear signal was sounded by the government. In the end, the Dow closed up 19 points at 10300.

In just a minute, Miles O'Brien, who is an excellent pilot, takes us up in a small plane for a close look at the safety equipment that is supposed to prevent scares like today.


ZAHN: Welcome back to Washington, D.C.

Still ahead, we're going to take you for a ride in the sky to see how small planes are designed to keep pilots from flying into trouble.

And a little bit later on, if you think what happened today was a pop quiz for Washington's security system, we'll check out its grade.

First, though, just about 15 minutes past the hour. Time to check the other top stories of the day with Erica Hill at HEADLINE NEWS.

Hi, Erica.


As the U.S. military battles insurgents in northern Iraq, the insurgents continue to attack civilians. In Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, a suicide bomber killed at least 30 Iraqis and injured 40 more. Baghdad was also rocked by four bombings. Police in Zion, Illinois, say Jerry Hobbs confessed to beating and stabbing his eight-year-old daughter and her best friend during an argument about breaking a curfew on Mother's Day. Police say Hobbs punched his daughter Laura, then grabbed a small knife from her friend Krystal when she came to her rescue. Hobbs was denied bail today.

The police chief of DeKalb County, Georgia, says Wayne Williams still serving time for six child murders more than 20 years ago, probably isn't guilty. The case has been reopened because of doubts about the evidence.

And you can walk and talk, but don't be driving and talking with a handheld cell phone in Chicago. It is the latest city to pass a ban on that. One alderman says he would also like to ban drinking, eating, makeup and shaving behind the wheel.

Paula, not sure how much of an issue that is, but probably not the safest move.

ZAHN: You know, I just wish he would add flossing to the list, seriously. I have seen people driving and flossing their teeth.


HILL: I've missed that one. But I guess it is part of the shaving routine.

ZAHN: It's kind of scary. You try to kind of get away from those folks.

Thanks, Erica. See you in about a half-hour from now.

Coming up, we're going to see just how easy it is for pilots flying small planes to end up where they're not supposed to be. Miles O'Brien, our own, will take to the skies for us.


ZAHN: Well, tonight, it looks like the two men who got just three miles from the White House in a single-engine plane won't face criminal charges, but they could face civil penalties.

To us on the ground, avoiding the White House seems like a no- brainer. But things can get more complicated in the air.

Here is why from CNN's Miles O'Brien, who is an experienced pilot himself.


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): You're looking at a Cessna 152. It's the cousin of the Cessna 150, which was involved in that incident in Washington.

It is a small airplane, only has about a 100-horsepower engine, flies a little more than 110 miles an hour, carries about 26 gallons of gas up here in the wings, weighs about 1,100 pounds empty, 1,600 pounds packed to the gills, dripping wet. In other words, it is a lot lighter, probably carries a little less fuel than the SUV that is sitting in your driveway right now. So, the amount of damage something like this can cause is pretty limited.

The Cessna 152 only has two seats, one for an instructor, one for a student. It is a tight fit. And it is interesting, because the flight which they were trying to accomplish today from Pennsylvania down to North Carolina, boy, that's a long ride in a Cessna 150.

The thing about the Cessna 150 and the 152 is, it is designed to teach people how to fly. It has got really just all the basic instruments, one radio and one transponder. That transponder is a very key device if you're going to be flying in and around big cities like Atlanta or especially in a place like Washington.

At this airport, there is a control tower. And so, before you move, you have to talk to somebody with air traffic control, first the ground control and then the control tower and then onward. But the plane that caused all the problems in Washington left from an uncontrolled airfield, which means pilots broadcast what they're doing on a common frequency or, if the airfield is not so busy, a lot of times, they don't talk on the radio at all.

That particular field in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was an uncontrolled field. And that means radio communication is optional. So, they may not have been talking on the radio at all at the outset of this flight.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) cleared for takeoff. Left turn southwest-bound approved.

O'BRIEN: The key is, when you're flying anywhere near a major city, it is very important that you check with the air traffic controllers before you fly into the airspace (ph) around the most busy airports.

Now, when you take off from a controlled field, like my field, Peachtree-DeKalb Airport, you don't necessarily have to talk to controllers after that, depending on where you are. As a matter of fact, once you are clear of the airspace that is controlled by the control tower, you enter a part of the world that communication with air traffic control is optional.

Things change dramatically when you get near some big cities and big airports. The airspace around them is tightly controlled. You have to talk to controllers. You have to use a specific code on your so-called transponder, which is designed to enhance your picture on radar screens and give controllers a little bit of information about you.

Without a specific transponder code and two-way communication with those air traffic controllers, you can't fly near the largest airports in America. A lot of people are not familiar with the fact that small airplanes like this, when they're flying along long distances, do not necessarily have to be in communication with air traffic control.

It's perfectly legal. As long as you can see out the window, see the ground, weather is good enough, you fly at a certain altitude, you can safely fly. As long as you avoid the restricted airspace, you can safely fly long distances without talking to anybody. So, the real question here -- and we'll be asking this question for a while -- is, what happened?

Were the pilots stupid? Did they not file a flight plan? Did they not talk to air traffic control? Did they not have their transponder set properly? Or is it possible they did everything by the rules and air traffic control made a mistake and lost them and, as a result, the planes and helicopters had to be scrambled?

Whatever the case, eventually once those military aircraft got into close proximity to that Cessna 150, they eventually were able to raise them on a special frequency reserved for these kinds of situations, emergency situations. And I am told by somebody who listened to that exchange that the pilot -- actually two of them were talking -- seemed to be under great duress as they were talking to that F-16 fighter jet and those Black Hawk helicopters. Well, duress is probably an understatement.


ZAHN: I think he got that right. Miles O'Brien reporting.

More than two-thirds of the licensed pilots in the U.S. belong to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. And they have a vested interest in security restrictions. With me now is the association's president Phil Boyer. Good to see you.


ZAHN: I don't know if your ears were burning tonight, but I flew into Reagan National, I've got to tell you, the pilots I spoke to were absolutely outraged. And I will use the mildest of terms, they used to reference these two pilots, they called them absolute dopes.

BOYER: Well, they haven't made our 4004 except for two pilots very happy. I got a lot of e-mails today from members who say, why did they do this? Those who are conscientious, those who preflight and look at airspace. And frankly in my opinion they screwed up.

ZAHN: How?

BOYER: Well, we don't know yet. But they didn't follow the first rules of flight which are properly brief your flight completely. Weather, but it was a great day. It was a wonderful day to fly. They were on their way to an aviation event for the weekend in North Carolina. Their other mandate from the FAA is get all of the information about your route of flight: the air space restrictions, the airports, et cetera.

ZAHN: Well, Kelli Arena in her piece early on in the show showed us a chunk of an interview with the father of the student pilot who said his son had some concerns about flying today.

BOYER: Well, we had heard that too.

ZAHN: Can you visualize for us tonight -- take us -- help us understand what went wrong.

BOYER: This is a ring. We're the only city in the nation, Washington, D.C. that has this outer ring which is about 75 miles from here to here. And then -- in which planes have to have a discreet miles set, transponder code, and talk to air traffic control if they enter this area.

And in this ring, unless you are an airliner cleared by airliner, no corporate, no small plane -- you must stay out of it, if it is called a no fly zone in this 15 mile ring, basically, around where we're sitting tonight. And they, first of all, penetrated this area, and then got into an area that very few planes do.

ZAHN: All right. But once you got into this area, you got a helicopter on top of you. And a couple of minutes later, you got an F-16 on each wing basically.

BOYER: It would be an interesting display of aviation hardware, wouldn't it?

ZAHN: But the top colonel from NORAD was saying at first his F- 16 pilots didn't find these guys cooperative. Now, we have heard one other little piece of the puzzle which as Kelli Arena just reported, there seemed to be a problem with the radio on this plane. Now, could you sign that off to some of the confusion?

BOYER: Well first of all, I haven't been there. And I hope I never am in that situation, or I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking to you as the president of AOPA. But let's imagine a student pilot, a pilot we understand that hadn't flown for a while, took quite a bit of time off and just came back to flying in the last year. And this display of military aviation left, right side -- OK, what exactly do we do again? What are the procedures for an intercept? What frequency do I tune my radio to?

A radio has some 400 frequencies that they could be on. If they weren't on the same one that the NORAD people wanted them to be on -- and how would they know -- they wouldn't be able to talk to them.

ZAHN: But Phil, you also have to understand that wouldn't flares get your attention up there?

BOYER: They sure did. And I guess they did. And that's what actually turned them around eventually and brought them to our home airport, Frederick, Maryland.

ZAHN: It is interesting, because the commercial pilots I spoke with tonight say there is a tremendous amount of confusion even among them about what they say are far too complicated clearances in this whole D.C. area.

BOYER: You're absolutely right.

ZAHN: And we know there have been sanctions at some of these airlines. They were saying there was a big meeting last week where you had violations by a bunch of different airlines.

BOYER: Some of these airline pilots are members, and have come to us early on after 9/11 and said could we have you folks you put together a plastic card for what to do in case of an intercept. And we actually have on our Web site -- pilots download this, take it to a local stationary store, laminate it and keep it in the cockpit.

ZAHN: Just a final thought about what the public should learn. NORAD said everything happened as efficiently as it should have, went off exactly as planned. The intercept was a big success.

BOYER: And I would have to agree that this was the system at work. They did intercept a small plane. They did assess its threat value. This is a very small plane. And they said this is not -- does not appear to us to be a threat. Otherwise those people wouldn't even be alive to talk to you perhaps tomorrow.

ZAHN: Phil Boyer, thank you for your time. Good luck in answering the rest of the e-mails you have to address later on this evening.

In just a minute, the disturbing question the back of everyone's mind, what if today hadn't been just a false alarm but a real attack?


ZAHN: A plane flies into restricted air space around Washington, fighter planes and a helicopter are scrambled. The plane is safely on the ground a half hour later. But it came within three miles, less than two minutes flying time, of the White House. So did the system work? Here is what Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff says.


MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I think that the lesson people ought to draw is that things are -- we had an excellent team of people who operate to secure the city and the country. And they're to go back and enjoy their day.


ZAHN: Retired Coast Guard Commander Steven Flynn is now a specialist on homeland security for the Council on Foreign Relations currently. He's consulting on security for the Port of Los Angeles where he joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us, Stephen.

So, what is your assessment of how all of this unfolded today?

STEPHEN FLYNN, HOMELAND SECURITY: Well, I think there is good news and bad news. In terms of the general ability to respond and intercept, digest the threat on the early side, I think things went very well. In terms of the spooking everybody in Washington, D.C., the mass evacuations, I suggest we probably need to work a little to work with a little more nuance in terms of how we approach these.

If we can identify it is a small craft and we have fighter escorts right nearby it, then the ability to mitigate that threat of being a real, real serious danger would be determined before we gave the -- clear everybody out of D.C. So it is good news and bad news.

ZAHN: So, Stephen, what would have been a more appropriate nuanced response if you knew this was a Cessna?

FLYNN: Well, the Cessna doesn't carry much fuel. If it hits something, it is not going to be like what we saw on 9/11 with a major jet airliner with enough fuel to basically create the equivalence, almost, of a nuclear weapon in terms of its energy impact. We're not dealing with that kind of threat in this instance, and, clearly, with the escort, if it got very close, you have the ability to bring that plane down if that was -- if that was required.

ZAHN: So, if I read between the lines here, are you suggesting that maybe a potential terrorist out there could see this reaction today and believe that we appear to be too vulnerable and it looked like we panicked?

FLYNN: Well, I think, one is, the next threat is not likely to come to us by an airplane. It's not going to be a replay of 9/11. We have a lot -- that's why I'm here in Los Angeles today, because there's a lot of other soft targets in this country, where we have a very long ways to go in terms of being able to detect and prevent these attacks and respond accordingly. And it's more likely that we're going to be in that direction than an airplane going after the White House or the Capitol.

The threat still exists. We have protocols to deal with it here. But one of the things we clearly want to be doing as an overall approach to dealing with the ongoing terrorist threats, is to be more resilient when the things -- when things happen. We gotta walk this line of one, avoiding the complacency which, to some extent, putting Washington through a drill hopefully helps remind those folks that this threat is ongoing. There's a lot of return to complacency going on in Washington as well as the rest of the nation.

But, ultimately, we have to be pretty mature about how we deal with these threats as an ongoing concern, because if we have too much of these false alarm, we get the cry-wolf problem, and it's a difficult line to draw, but it's one that -- it's obviously a work in progress.

ZAHN: Were you surprised that the president wasn't even told of this incursion of this air space, that this plane was within three miles of the White House, until the whole thing was over?

FLYNN: Not especially. I guess, again, if we didn't have a system to intercept the plane and verify what was going on. We have that rehearsed system, and the risk of that plane being able to come in contact with the White House or really downtown was almost nonexistent once the Black Hawks were up and the fighter escorts were next door. So, as it turned out it was a false alarm. The need to go right to the commander-in-chief and tell them we have stuff wandering into air space -- probably not at that -- quite -- urgency -- set of time.

If (ph) it was a major airliner we knew nothing about, if it were some sort of other aircraft, we would certainly obviously raise our concern level much, much higher. But the system was able to discern the threat, I think, and work a way through it reasonably well. It is the on-ground communication side of things and the ability -- how do we respond when we get these threats and manage it well that we're going to continue to need to refine.

ZAHN: All right. Commander Stephen Flynn, thank you so much for your expertise tonight.

And still to come in our special report, we'll remember the time not that long ago when a small plane actually crash landed at the White House.


ZAHN: Beautiful night here in Washington, D.C. after a frenetic day. Still to come, the time a pilot got on to the White House grounds and it wasn't all that long ago.

Plus, a look at the very vital role private aviation plays all over the country.

First, though, quarter to the hour, time for Erica Hill at HEADLINE NEWS to update the rest of the day's top stories.

HILL: Paula, a big surprise for economists and Wall Street. Pretty happy about it, too. Americans spent less on imports in a month of March and the trade deficit tumbled to $55 billion -- hasn't been that low in six months. The U.S. also sold more goods overseas.

A special ops military helicopter has crashed near Angel Fire, New Mexico, near the Colorado border. The military says one person died, two others were hurt. The helicopter was on a training mission. So far, there is no explanation for the crash.

Actor Macaulay Culkin told the jury in the Michael Jackson trial, he was never touched or sexually molested when he spent time at Neverland as a boy. Culkin, who's now 24, added, he considers Jackson a friend and the allegations against him to be, quote, "absolutely ridiculous."

And, it turns out a fortune cookie factory in New York printed millions of cookies with five of the six winning numbers for the March 30th Powerball Lottery, and that produced 110 second place winners that collected more than $19 million. And, of course, lottery officials suspected a little bit fraud here, but it was just the way the cookie crumbled. And I'll leave you with that. Paula, back to you.

ZAHN: Thanks, Erica. The luck of the draw there.

In just a minute, Wolf Blitzer remembers the time he was covering the White House when a small plane crashed outside.

And a little bit later on, how ordinary people protect our skies every day.


ZAHN: The scare in the air over Washington skies today, a reminder of what happened 11 years ago when a small plane actually crashed into the White House.

Wolf Blitzer was CNN's White House correspondent when that happened.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was 1:49 a.m., September 12, 1994. A Cessna P-150 crashed into the White House. All these years later, I remember that day vividly. The plane was stolen by this man Frank Eugene Corder, a 38-year-old student pilot with a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Corder spent the evening of September 11 1994 drinking and smoking crack cocaine before being dropped off at the airport in Churchville, Maryland, where he stole the plane just before midnight. Corder's flight was first detected by the tower at Baltimore Washington International Airport at 1:06 a.m. placing him near York, Pennsylvania. Less than 40 minutes later at 1:44 a.m., Washington National Airport noticed that the plane was about six-and-a-half miles north of the White House. Three minutes later, the plane was some six blocks from the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It started like diving down a little bit. But there was no noise, there was no nothing. All I could see was just gliding. And then as he got near the field it started turning left and lining up with the White House.

BLITZER: The plane crashed on to the South Lawn of the White House, skidding into a magnolia tree before coming to rest at the southwest corner of the White House itself. Frank Corder was killed. The Secret Service got just 14 seconds of warning before the crash happened. Enough time to run for cover was the way one agent described it to "The Washington Post."

Immediately afterwards, officials began talking about putting better security procedures in place. Better low level radar capability, looking at the use of shoulder fired antiaircraft missiles and the possibility of using fighter jets to intercept planes entering the restricted air space. But the actual security measures taken were classified. Many procedures put into place since the 1994 crash at White House intensified after September 11. The expansion of restricted air space gives authorities much more time to warn pilots away, and to get those fighter jets into the skies.

One footnote that I also remember vividly, President Clinton and his family were not in the White House that night. They slept that night across Pennsylvania Avenue at Blair House, the official guest residence, because the air conditioning in the executive mansion was being repaired. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: That was Wolf Blitzer reporting. Lucky for them.

Coming up next, the weekend warriors who aren't in the military, but are flying to keep us safe.


ZAHN: The men and women of the military aren't the only ones patrolling our skies, there are also volunteers. Ordinary people who are protecting America. They belong to an organization that goes all the way back to World War II. Here is Jonathan Freeh.


JONATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If it looks like a typical lawyer's office, that's because it is.

ROCK PALERMO, CIVIL AIR PATROL: Didn't we file suit on this?


FREED: But Rock Palermo is not your typical small town attorney. This member of the Louisiana Bar has an alter ego, as a colonel in the Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force.

PALERMO: That switch is coming on.

FREED: Palermo is a pilot and part time crusader for Homeland Security, where the bar is set for him at 10,000 feet.

PALERMO: I'm proud that we're the eyes of the home skies for many years since World War II.

FREED: Palermo is one of 60,000 volunteers across the country who man the Civil Air Patrol's missions including security reconnaissance flights, disaster relief, and performing 85 percent of all inland search and rescue operations.

PALERMO: All of those missions, you know, serve our local communities. And, you know, that's really the best reason to join Civil Air Patrol or join any organization is to help your fellow man and Civil Air Patrol enables us to do that.

FREED: Palermo says, the Patrol's pilots save an average of 100 lives every year, while also saving money because most missions are flown using small relatively inexpensive to operate single engine planes. Members pay dues, and even pay for their own uniforms. Since September 11th there's been an increasing emphasis on sorties for Homeland Security. On this flight, our aircraft is acting as a practice target for the military, flying into restricted airspace, triggering a fighter jet intercept.

(on camera): An intercept can happen anytime an unauthorized aircraft enters a restricted area. Authorities first try to warn the aircraft away by radio. But if a plane doesn't respond or doesn't comply, that's when the intercept occurs, and the plane is escorted out of the area.

(voice-over): Entering the no fly zone, he briefs the crew.

PALERMO: We're responding apply with all our signals.

FREED: To protect national security, we're not allowed to tell you how long it takes for the fighters to intercept us, exactly where we are, or even how high we're flying.

PALERMO: Hi (ph), Bird. Hi (ph), Bird. Ridge relay (ph) two miles in trail and closing.

FREED: We can show you what it looks like when the United States Air Force swoops down on you, literally, from out of the blue. The fighters order us to rock our wings, the sign for surrendering to an intercepting aircraft. Once they see we've complied, the jets instruct us to leave the air space.

(on camera): Do you ever pinch yourself and say I cannot believe that I have the opportunity do this?

PALERMO: Yes, I never would have thought that I would be routinely flying missions in which a F-15 or a F-16 would come alongside in formation. And it is a unique experience that not many pilots, unless they're in trouble, get to experience.

FREED: The privilege, though, comes with a price as some members spend dozens of hours away from home and work every week.

(on camera): How important is your family's support to enable you to do this?

PALERMO: Oh, very important for all our volunteers, both family support and support from our co-workers when we're called for duty. Many times there's not much notice.

The satisfaction is what keeps all of us going. The satisfaction -- and be it a volunteer firefighter on the ground, or an emergency manager or another Air Force person saying job well done, you know, you made our mission, or you helped us solve a problem is all the thanks we need. And now I am getting emotional.

FREED: When emotions bubble, Palermo says he draws on the mental discipline he's acquired as a lawyer to stay focused while in uniform. So he's always ready for the next time his country calls.


ZAHN: And we appreciate that. Thanks so much for joining us. Aaron Brown has more at 10:00. Good night.



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