The Cessna flying over downtown Washington, DC

A lot of folks up here have asked about the two-seat Cessna that flew over downtown Washington, DC last week, spreading panic among the bureaucrats.  How could this have happened, they wonder, imagining that the average small plane has at least the computing and display power of a Honda Accord with the navi system option.  In reality an old plane like the Cessna 150 is worth less than $20,000.  Thanks to the miracle of FAA bureaucracy, a moving-map GPS unit that can be legally installed in the dashboard costs around $10,000 plus another $500/year to keep the database of airports and navigation aids current (this is government info so it would be possible for the FAA to make this available on the Web in a machine-readable form and encourage owner’s of cheap planes to keep it current).  Consequently the Cessna 150 that these guys were flying didn’t have one.  It is possible to get handheld GPS units for $500-1000 but they rely on AA batteries and never seem to have juice left when you need them.  Without a GPS or some earlier form of electronic navigation it is reasonably easy to get lost.  Look to the left:  sprawl, Walmarts, McMansions, SUVs.  Look to the right:  sprawl, Walmarts, McMansions, SUVs.  Look straight ahead:  sprawl, Walmarts, McMansions, SUVs.  Making matters worse the DC area is fairly flat with no distinctive terrain and the weather tends to be hazy so if you’re flying low you usually can’t see more than five strip malls ahead.

My favorite part of these flight restriction violation incidents is the actual bust.  When the two-seat 40-year-old airplane is finally forced to land it is surrounded by 20-30 law enforcement officials, each carrying a semi- or fully automatic pistol or rifle.  By this time the airplane and its pilot are 30 or 40 miles from the restricted area and they’re at a big airport with miles of grass and fence all around.  There would be no way for the pilot to escape.    Yet despite the fact that in no case has one of these pilots ever been carrying any kind of weapon the 20-30 cops have their guns drawn and pointed at the poor schlub standing next to his 1000-lb. airplane.  The pilot is pushed down onto the pavement and handcuffed (see the photos from the recent incident at Frederick; another good one was a pipeline patrol pilot in Pennsylvania during the last presidential election who didn’t find out about a last-minute visit by George W.).  To me it always made the government look weak and paranoid.  If they are this afraid of a confused unarmed guy in a 1962 Cessna 150 (who in all of the cases so far had kept his transponder turned on for the entire flight to facilitate FAA tracking) how can they possibly handle our actual enemies?

[The Cessna 150 seems to be the preferred choice for presidential intimidation.  The 1994 suicide crash of a light plane into the White House was, as one would hope conspiracy theorists would soon note, a Cessna 150 (see for more on this incident).]

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