Look. Up in the sky.
It could be a bird. But around the U.S. Capitol, it might be a plane.
There have been a lot of them over the years when it comes to possible air incursions around the Capitol.
This weekend’s security scare and the “ghost plane” that crashed in central Virginia briefly triggered an alert on Capitol Hill.
In fact, the decision by congressional officials to enhance the security posture at the Capitol on Sunday afternoon helped Fox determine what may have been the source of the prodigious sonic boom heard all over the Washington metropolitan region. The sonic boom – coupled with the report of a Cessna that flew from eastern Tennessee to Long Island and then made a U-turn – tipped us off there may have been something amiss. The security alert at the U.S. Capitol itself elevated the entire episode to another level.
The change in security posture also tipped off Fox that the military was in hot pursuit of the errant plane – especially when it cruised back through the Washington, D.C., region.
There is an air security bubble encasing Washington, D.C. Once security officials at the Capitol observed the Cessna Citation entering the capital city’s restricted airspace, congressional authorities flipped the security posture from “Green” to “Yellow.” They did not escalate the security posture to a higher level, such as “Blue” or “Red.” They evacuate the U.S. Capitol complex if they go to “Red.”
Concerns about air security surrounding the Capitol date back to Sept. 11, 2011.
It took several years, but U.S. intelligence services ultimately determined that the U.S. Capitol was the intended target of the “fourth plane,” which crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on 9/11.
Since 9/11, officials take these potential air incursions very seriously.
There have been a number of incidents over the years when authorities thought they had a plane coming toward the Capitol.
Letter carrier Doug Hughes piloted his gyrocopter (basically a flying lawnmower) from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the West Front of the Capitol in the spring of 2015. The gyrocopter is small enough that it literally flew “under the radar.” It’s one thing to have air defense systems mounted around Washington, D.C. to defend against a jet. But it would be hard to detect a craft as small as a gyrocopter. Or, even today, a drone.
In the spring of 2005, another aircraft mistakenly pierced the Capitol security ring, forcing officials to dump the building. The Air Force guided the errant pilot to an airport in suburban Leesburg, Virginia.
Another pilot accidently veered off course a few days later. The security detail of then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whisked her away so quickly that they lifted the California Democrat out of her slingback heels. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., found the shoes. He returned them to the California Democrat a few days later, even getting down on one knee as though he held the glass slipper.
A weird “blob” of some sort surfaced on radar around Washington early one morning in November 2019. No one ever figured out what it was. Birds. A weather anomaly. A digital artifact. Aliens. Congressional officials briefly enhanced the security posture after that incident. However, they never located a nefarious aircraft. Or the blob.
Probably the most dramatic evacuation came in June 2004. The military was about to escort the casket bearing the body of the late President Ronald Reagan to the Capitol rotunda to lie in state. The Capitol complex was on an extraordinary state of alert that day because of global dignitaries who had traveled to Washington to pay their respects. Among the mourners: former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
All of a sudden, U.S. Capitol Police burst into the rotunda and demanded everyone evacuate. They thought they had a plane coming in.
It turns out, the Kentucky State Police jet carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) to Washington for the funeral deviated off course. The aircraft also had a bad transponder. The military scrambled the jets and police emptied the Capitol just before Reagan’s body was to lie in state.
In April of last year, congressional security officials evacuated the Capitol after police ID’d an aircraft as “a probable threat.” But it turned out that the plane in question was carrying the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team. The team was slated to parachute into Nats Park, a few blocks from the Capitol for pregame ceremonies ahead of a contest between the Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks. It was Military Appreciation Night at Nats Park.
Authorities authorized the Golden Knights flight. But the FAA apparently failed to communicate properly with the U.S. Capitol Police That prompted the evacuation when authorities saw how close that aircraft flew to the Capitol.
At the time, Pelosi – as House speaker – torched the FAA over the incident. Pelosi said the “apparent failure to notify Capitol Police of the pre-planned flyover Nationals Stadium is outrageous and inexcusable.”
Not a lot of people were inside the Capitol complex this past Sunday afternoon when security officials briefly ticked up the security posture because of the wayward plane. Congress wasn’t in session. There are no official tours on Sundays. The Capitol complex was likely occupied by U.S. Capitol Police officers, maintenance workers, custodial staff and perhaps a scattering of aides who zipped by the office to do some work or print something out. There are always a couple of lawmakers themselves around. Many House members live in their offices when in Washington.
There will be other air security issues in the future at the Capitol. Some just concerns. Just big worries. Others, true scares.
But what unfolded around the Capitol on Sunday afternoon is the legacy of 9/11 and the plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
The “Flight 93” plaque hangs in the U.S. Capitol near the rotunda. It honors those on board the plane that went down on Sept. 11. The plaque states that heroes on board Flight 93 “not only saved countless lives but may have saved the U.S. Capitol from destruction.”
The echoes of Sept. 11 were heard around the U.S. Capitol last Sunday afternoon.
And they were much louder than a sonic boom.