A small, single-engine plane strayed into restricted air space near the U.S. Capitol on Friday, forcing anxious officials to place the White House in temporary lockdown and take steps to evacuate the U.S. Capitol.
The episode was over within minutes as two F-16 fighter jets and two Coast Guard helicopters were dispatched to intercept the plane and escort it to an airport in Maryland, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. U.S. Northern Command spokesman Michael Kucharek said the two helicopters established communications with the pilot.
The plane landed at Indian Head Airport in Charles County, Md., where airport owner Gil Bauserman said the aircraft had been flying from Maine to North Carolina. Bauserman said the military notified the airport that the plane, which he identified as a Cessna 180, would be making an unscheduled landing at 12:45 p.m. EDT. The plane landed 15 minutes later, escorted by the F-16s and the helicopters.
“It was just a navigation mistake, the GPS went and the pilot got confused,” Bauserman said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“This has happened many times. The restricted zone in D.C., all it does is catch poor innocent people. They’ve never caught a terrorist, it’s just people making a mistake,” he said.
The pilot and his wife were en route to North Carolina to visit the couple’s daughter, according to Bauserman.
President Barack Obama was believed to be in the White House at the time. The White House declined to say where the president was, but Obama remained on schedule for a 1:30 p.m. EDT appearance in the Diplomatic Reception Room to deliver remarks on education.
The Senate was in session, and briefly recessed. The House was not meeting.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Capitol’s alert level was briefly elevated but quickly returned to normal.
Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley said the security measures were taken “out of an abundance of caution.”
Across the street from the Capitol, there was no interruption of a House hearing at which former Vice President Al Gore was testifying about climate change legislation.
Authorities have been on high alert for planes entering airspace in and around major government buildings since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.