Despite FAA warning, stray jets tough to shoot downBy BILL ADAIR and PAUL de la GARZA
© St. Petersburg Times,
WASHINGTON -- The reopening of Reagan National Airport raises a nightmare scenario that the Bush administration would prefer not to talk about: how to respond when a plane strays into a restricted area.
A new warning to pilots from the Federal Aviation Administration is blunt about the consequences of flying into prohibited airspace over Washington, New York and other locations around the nation. Planes will be intercepted by fighter jets and -- if the pilots do not follow instructions -- they could be shot down.
"IF NECESSARY, THE MILITARY HAS INDICATED THAT DEADLY FORCE WILL BE USED TO PROTECT THESE AREAS FROM UNAUTHORIZED INCURSIONS," the FAA told pilots in a notice last Friday.
That message and other changes in the skies are striking reminders of how American life has changed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Fighter planes are patrolling the skies over Washington and New York, and military pilots now have rules of engagement for dealing with a jet full of passengers.
But retired fighter pilots say it would be nearly impossible to shoot down a jetliner flying to or from Reagan National that suddenly veered off to hit the White House or the Capitol. The military would have less than a minute to determine the plane is hostile, get approval from the proper authorities and then fire.
"You'd have to be in orbit over National Airport and someone gave you the precise location of the airplane," said Chuck Myers, a former fighter pilot. "You'd have a 50-50 chance of having a shot at it. What's the point? You are going to shoot it down somewhere over the city. There is no way you are going to avoid a disaster."
Reagan National will reopen on Thursday with extraordinary security measures such as additional sky marshals and extra ID checks for passengers. Flights to and from the airport will no longer follow the usual path along the Potomac River and will instead use more direct routes.
But officials provided no details about how the government would detect if planes had been diverted from the airport -- or how the military would respond.
President Bush emphasized Tuesday that there are tremendous safeguards because of the rigorous checks that will be required for passengers, pilots and airline workers involved in flights to and from Reagan National.
"We've taken our time," Bush said. "We can assure the American public as best as we can that we're taking the necessary safety precautions."
Pentagon officials have said deadly force would be used only as a last resort.
"Don't get the impression that anyone that is flying around out there has a loose trigger finger. That's not the case," Gen. Henry H. Shelton, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week.
Reagan National provides a difficult challenge because it is in Arlington, Va., less than 1 mile from the Pentagon and just a few miles from the Capitol and the White House. Former fighter pilots and military experts say that even with the latest technology, it could be especially difficult to identify and stop a hijacked airliner before it hits a target in Washington.
Everest E. Riccioni, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, said it would be almost impossible for an F-16 or F-15 to intercept a rogue aircraft. Even if the fighter was already in the air, it would take several minutes for the pilot to get the shoot-down order, identify the plane and shoot it down.
The problem, he said, is magnified with a fighter aircraft on alert but on the ground. It would take five to ten additional minutes.
"There isn't a prayer that he can get to a target in 15 minutes," Riccioni said. "In all that time, the event is over."
Riccioni said no amount of preparation can stop someone on a suicide mission. "It's pretty hard to stop somebody willing to risk his life to kill you. We're always looking for a coat of armor."
It's unclear how the military will determine when planes are sufficiently off-track to indicate they have been hijacked. The government is exploring several types of systems that would be more precise than existing radar, according to the Washington Post.
But even with more precise data, it will be difficult for the military to respond quickly enough. A Reagan National-bound plane that veered away could hit the Capitol or the White House in about 1 minute, pilots said.
Before the attacks, there were no formal rules on how the military should deal with an airliner hijacked over the United States. Since then, the Pentagon has issued rules of engagement to deal with the scenario.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the decision whether to issue a shoot-down order went down the chain of command, beginning with the president, to the secretary of defense, and then to a commander-in-chief, or CINC, "a combatant commander somewhere in the world."
He added, however, that it did not have to be delegated down very far.
"It can be kept quite close to a very senior level."
Rumsfeld pointed out that he and the president were never more than a minute or two away from a secure telephone. Since the attacks, several fighters have been scrambled to investigate what turned out to be false alarms.
F-15s and F-16s have been patrolling round-the-clock over Washington and New York, and randomly over dozens of other cities. In addition, more than 100 fighter jets at 26 bases nationwide are ready to take off within 10 minutes, up from 14 planes at seven bases on comparable alert the day of the attacks.
Rumsfeld acknowledged that there might be only a short time to decide whether to shoot down a plane, but he said stringent safeguards were in place to make sure there were no mistakes.
Pilots said they were confident that the new security rules will not lead to accidental shootings.
"This is something that is done to protect the traveling public as well as the people on the ground," said John Cox, a US Airways pilot from St. Petersburg who is the top safety official for the Air Line Pilots Association. "I believe we can do this safely."
Bill Sorbie, a retired airline pilot who lives in St. Petersburg, said pilots pay careful attention to restrictions on where they can fly.
"The fact that they are threatening to shoot somebody down for going into those areas doesn't bother me because we are not going to go into those areas anyway," Sorbie said.
However, Sorbie said he was a little squeamish about the possibility that a pilot who strayed from the flight path because of an engine failure might be regarded as a terrorist.
He said, "I hope there is not a trigger-happy guy on the ground."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times wire desk
Susan Taylor Martin
From the AP