Originally created 05/13/05

Air-scare lessons



Federal officials are giving themselves pretty good grades for the way they handled Wednesday's air scare when an errant Cessna 150 aircraft wandered into Washington's protected air space. The intrusion triggered a red alert and forced 35,000 people to evacuate the Capitol, Supreme Court and congressional buildings.

Nobody got hurt, and the small aircraft - after ignoring warnings from ground and air - eventually landed safely when a couple of Air Force fighter planes fired warning flares over the heads of the two lost, confused pilots, and then escorted them to a nearby airport.

The crisis lasted about 15 minutes, and authorities said the response in the air and on the ground, though not perfect, was good enough, but could stand improvement. They're right about that. The incident provided an unexpected learning experience that laid bare what emergency systems growing out of the 9-11 tragedy worked and what didn't.

It's dismaying that a couple of pilots who weren't sure where they were or where they were going could penetrate so deeply into the 2,000-square-mile protected airspace around the nation's capital. When the fighter planes finally got the Cessna's attention, the little aircraft was just 90 seconds from the White House.

That's much too close. It's scary to think what might have happened if the interlopers knew what they were doing and their plane was packed with explosives.

Also, why weren't the thousands of people in nearby downtown office buildings evacuated? In the event of a real terrorist suicide air attack, they likely would be secondary targets or victims of collateral damage. Yet the D.C. city government wasn't even notified there was an emergency situation under way.

Communications is one area in which there's room for improvement. There also is a need to respond much more quickly when protected air space is penetrated. If the various security forces around the capital can bridge those gaps, then Wednesday's air scare will prove to be a good thing.

It might also be a good idea to review the pilot licenses of the two errant aviators.