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).]

24 thoughts on “The Cessna flying over downtown Washington, DC

  1. Better safe than sorry. It is easy after the fact to say “poor confused unarmed guy in a 40 year old plane”. But when the plane is full of explosives, and detonates, people say “how could this happen”.

  2. Ole: Yes, by all means let’s be safe with an airplane that we think might be packed with explosives by getting to within 10′ of it and having all of our guns drawn and ready for accidental discharge into the heart of the bomb (as demonstrated in all the news photos).

  3. Totally off topic: Philip, I am visiting Boston for the first time for 5 days in June, staying in Cambridge at the Hotel Marlowe, and would love to hear your suggestions on how to spend a non-touristy but with a strong local flavor day in Boston. I have a few guidebooks and lots of thoughts on things to do, but would love to hear from a local about the road less traveled in Boston. Thanks for your time!

  4. I agree that this makes the government look weak and paranoid. Unfortunately everything that is being done in the name of home land security makes the government look weak, ineffectual and paranoid. Every time someone is stopped at an airport with some sewing scissors, or pocket knife I feel less safe. The screener system is ideally designed for ass coverage. The previously experienced attacks are being prevented, so no one will repeat the past mistakes, but guess what, the terrorist are planning to repeat their attacks. Plus, the screening is so obviously annoying and ineffectual, that people will lose patience and the vigilance will cease on needed security measures.

  5. Lisa: If you have a car a trip to Cape Ann (Gloucester, Rockport) is very nice with much of the scenic flavor of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard without the long drive and horrific traffic. In the city of Boston itself I think the walk-through globe at the Christian Science library is a must-see. Non-touristy, eh? The main industries in Boston are education and biotech so you’d have to come hang out at a university or a genetic engineering company if you really wanted to avoid the stigma of tourism. Touring MIT, Harvard, and BU and seeing the fabulous new buildings that only the truly rich and tax-exempt can afford is kind of interesting.

  6. Phil, in case you have forgotten since it’s been a few years since you’ve lived here, there is this landmark called the Washington Monument – the tallest buidling in DC, that is an easy spot and definitive sign to STAY THE F*UCK AWAY from this point. If you are too blind or stupid to notice it, please don’t fly in my neck of the woods.

  7. Lisa:

    Second that seeing the walk-through globe… particularly if you have any interest in comparative religions.

  8. Question: You say that it flew over downtown, but the news reports say “within 3 miles of the White House”, which would be distinctly outside of the “downtown” area of DC. Two miles would get you outside of downtown. Three miles would in the district, but not downtown. Do we have any reports of people “downtown” visually siting the 150 (as opposed to the government aircraft which were flying all over the place and always are). Maybe you could clarify with some specific details, unless the true “facts” are deliberately being “managed”.

    — Jack Krupansky

  9. Thanks, Philip and David! I will definitely check out that globe; it sounds like just the type of hidden gem I am looking for. I won’t have a car, but was considering taking the ferry to Provincetown for a day so I can have some “beach town time” . . . is there a beach destination reachable by public transportation that you would recommend over P’town? Also, the Harvard or MIT tour would be nice; do you know of a fun/interesting tour service, as opposed to the standard student campus tour? I’ll check my books and look online, but thought you might know of one. I am definitely looking forward to some people-watching at Harvard Square! Last question: do either of you know of a good local sports bar where I could watch the Cubs/Red Sox games with real life Sox fans? (I’m a devoted Cubs fan, but as a result, I am brave and unafraid of ridicule.)

  10. Jack: You’re probably right that the plane didn’t get that close to the central D.C. area. And no news reports have said what the visibility was. 3 miles is actually the legal minimum for a lot of VFR flying so it is possible that they couldn’t see the landmarks of DC nor could the people on the ground see any plane. The Southeast is good for small airplanes in that it is one of the least windy areas of the nation but it is bad in terms of the haziness.

  11. Ole, put your self in the mind of a would-be suicide bomber for a second.

    You are flying a cessna loaded with bombs to the White House. When you are about 3 miles away, ATC tells you: “you are in restricted airspace, please turn heading Y to land at airport X”.

    Would you:
    a) Turn off the radio and continue
    b) Do as instructed

    So what do you recon the odds are at these guys being terrorists?

  12. @Bas,

    Your scenario does not match the news reports. They tried to communicate with the aircraft well before it was 3 miles away from the White House, and it did not respond on the likely frequencies.

    The plane was intercepted with armed aircraft. That changes the decision somewhat, don’t you think?

  13. I don’t know how many other people here are pilots, but Phil presented the issues surrounding navigation in a very biased way. One does not navigate by strip malls, and any pilot who does so deserves to lose their certificate. The original post implies that it would be difficult to hold the pilot accountable.
    First airspace, that is regions of space which have particular requirements before you enter them, is a fundamental concept. It’s very basic to flying that you plan your route with these in mind and be mindful of them throughout the flight.
    Second, if you are navigating by “pilotage”, that is using a chart and landmarks on the ground, the charts highlight those things which are easier to spot from the air. Water towers, radio towers, distinct buildings, major highways, rail roads, bodies of water, etc. They don’t list strip malls.
    Third, there are electronic navigation aids that almost all aircraft have, specifically the VOR. That allows you to follow a distinct line in space. I would be shocked if the Cessna 150 did not have a VOR on board.
    Fourth, there is a service known as “flight following” where you are in contact with a controller covering a certain region of air and are then handed off from controller to controller as you transition between regions. It is not a guaranteed service for flying under VFR (visual flight rules), but my experience is that it’s rarely denied, and in the D.C. area with so many areas of concern, I would be even more surprised if it was denied. The controller would warn you if you were flying into a restricted region.
    A good pilot will not just use one of these navigation techniques but few if not all of them, checking and rechecking them against each other. Basically, the pilot screwed up big time. There really is no excuse.</p.

  14. Eric, not really. When was the last time a would be martyr actualy gave himself up? If you die trying you still get your 70 virgins, as far as I am aware…

    He seriously stuffed up and deserved a good talking to, but sticking 20 automatic weapons in his face seems a bit over the top and a waste of resources that could be used for going after more likely suspects.

  15. Eric: I did not intend to imply that these gentlemen were to be emulated or that they represented the best of America’s hundreds of thousands of certificated pilots. On the other hand they probably would not have made this spectacular mistake if they’d had a moving-map GPS in the panel. My posting was intended to explain to the non-piloting reader how it is possible, 15 years after GPS was more or less completed, that an airplane is flying around without a GPS receiver.

    From a macho pilot point of view it is kind of cool that the FAA has such antiquated systems and relies on people to squint at charts and peer through the haze at bridges that they might never have seen before, or to tune in radio beacons from the 1950s and interpret the dials and needles and reference those back to a paper chart. It gives us the opportunity to laugh at people who screw up and feel superior. But from an engineering point of view it seems better to design (literally) fool-proof systems if our goal is to avoid airspace incursions. There are hundreds of thousands of pilots who could have done that flight last week in any airplane without violating the ADIZ. But as an engineer with a $20 GPS receiver chip in your hand you want to ask yourself “What about those last couple of guys who might not get it right?”

  16. No Phil, that’s just the point,
    better systems will not prevent
    stupid pilots from screwing
    up. I know you are pissed about
    the govt not getting affordable
    GPS out there, and I agree.
    But Eric was correct, you
    need to know this stuff and be aware.

    Making flying more ‘idiot proof’ just guarantees more idiots will try it. Not what I want. But as mentioned before, I am biased. I don’t want someone who shouldn’t be flying, to
    do so into my house.

    Round here, I live in Lancaster (actually
    Lititz), the reports were that the pilot
    did not check weather, notams (not that
    either would have helped), was completely
    befuddled, and that finally the student
    had to land the plane.

  17. Philip:

    I am amazed that you still have that
    wonderful energy and interest in people
    after all these years. (We spoke a few
    time at AI 6th floor but I am sure you do not
    remember me.)

    About Lisa’s “off topic question” above, don’t
    you think Marblehead should be a good destination? Historic and remarkable, I find.
    She can even get there by city bus.


  18. Philip: you claimed that “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.” The reality is that any handheld GPS comes with a power adapter that can be plugged into the ship’s cigarette lighter. And if it’s inop or for some reason been disabled (there was an AD requiring this on some Cessnas because the lighter circuit did not have an appropriate circuit breaker), you can always do somthing REALLY crazy and, say, carry spare batteries.

    You also said “Without a GPS or some earlier form of electronic navigation it is reasonably easy to get lost.” Maybe for a passenger. This should not be the case for a pilot, even if they’re flying a Piper Cub with nothing but airspeed and altimeter in the panel. Pilots are trained to realize that the moment they are uncertain of their position, they are now “lost” and to continue would be foolish. They are taught to circle, climb, communicate, confess they are lost, and figure out where they hell they are before proceding. I teach each of my students to use navigation equipment, landmarks, ATC, and every other resource at their disposal.

    The aircraft those two morons were flying may be old and lack satellite navigation, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t navigate or should be given a pass for getting “lost”. The pilot in command is responsible for what happened, period.


  19. Philip,

    I think you’re too generous in giving credit to the lost pilot/instructor of the aircraft with your comment about pilotage being a difficult form of nagivation. I’ve flown both ways… map & compass all the way up to IFR GPS devices and really do prefer the old-fashioned way. Granted most of my flying is on the west coast with plentiful landmarks, but even when I’ve ventured across the great plains in a single-engine cessna the map & compass worked just fine, provided you’re attentive, I think its easy enough to know where you are within a mile or two at all times… no navigation radios or gps! Clearly the instructor on this flight shouldn’t be an instructor any more…

    As far as surrounding the aircraft at gunpoint, I agree with you whole heartedly. I am just happy that some restraint was shown and they did not fire on the aircraft unnecessarily.

  20. Does your typical airplane have a cigarette lighter?

    Anyhow, the really amusing fact of this incident is that they didn’t inform little lord fauntleroy that Washington was being evacuated until it was all over, lest he panic and soil another pair of presidential briefs.

  21. Perhaps they should have shot that limey sucker out of the air. It would send a powerful message to the American people that this administration is not going to tolerate any behavior which embarrasses the Government. Whatever happened to that great American saying: Shoot first, ask questions later. And how about that second great American truism: Ignorance is no excuse. Screw up and you forfeit your ordinary human rights.

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