November 11, 2009
The House aviation subcommittee today took FAA and Transportation Security Administration officials to task for communications failures that led to the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol on June 9, 2004, as thousands gathered for President Ronald Reagan's funeral.
At the time, FAA controllers were aware of a malfunctioning transponder on the governor of Kentucky's aircraft, and the pilot maintained continuous contact with the FAA as he flew his assigned flight plan. However, due to the communications failure between security agencies, other officials were not aware that the aircraft was on an FAA-approved flight plan. This led them to believe a terrorist attack might be under way and set in motion plans to shoot down the governor's plane.
"As the subcommittee members pointed out time and again, this was a communications failure between government agencies, not a security failure," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "The pilots and the Air Traffic Organization followed all required in-flight procedures. But the communications breakdown within the federal government potentially imperiled the governor of Kentucky."
Subcommittee members also questioned the efficiency of and continuing need for the 60-mile air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that surrounds the Washington, D.C. area. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel, said at today's hearing, "If we want to stop determined terrorists, the steps are clearly inadequate. If we want to harass general aviation pilots, they're great."
During questioning by Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), both FAA and TSA officials confirmed that none of the ADIZ airspace violations by general aviation pilots was connected to terrorist activity.
An article in this morning's Washington Post claimed military officials were moments away from shooting the governor's aircraft out of the sky. According to the article, only the pilots' turn onto the normal approach pattern for Washington's Reagan National Airport (DCA) saved the flight.
At the hearing, most of the members stressed that the problem was the lack of communications among government agencies. Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) called the breakdown "alarming and unacceptable." Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) said the core issue is communications and noted the incident need not have happened. Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) put it succinctly when he said the agencies charged with security need to "communicate, communicate, communicate."
Despite concerns raised by subcommittee members, FAA representative Linda Schuessler told Rep. Stephan Pearce (R-N.M.) that the agency plans to release a notice of proposed rulemaking within the next few weeks to make the Baltimore-Washington ADIZ permanent.
"AOPA will vigorously oppose any proposal to make the ADIZ permanent," said Boyer. "The 15-nm no-fly zone that was in put in place shortly after the September 11 attacks provided adequate security for the nation's capital before the Iraq war when the ADIZ was imposed, and it would do so again. The ADIZ has cost businesses at the 19 public-use airports it encompasses tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Many have gone out of business. Making the ADIZ permanent and removing any hope of a return to normal would surely cause many more to close their doors.
"The simple fact is that general aviation aircraft, even one as large as the twin-engine turboprop that Kentucky's governor was aboard, are incapable of causing the kind of damage we suffered on September 11, 2001, when terrorists used large airliners with huge loads of jet fuel."
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