We are mere private citizens from a small Pennsylvania town who have found ourselves thrust into the national spotlight after an unplanned and unintentional brush with local, state and federal authorities, during what was meant to be an uneventful flight from Lancaster to Lumberton, North Carolina. In an effort to help everyone understand what happened during this incident, the following is a recounting of those events associated with our flight on Wednesday, May 11, 2005.
In preparation for our upcoming flight, on the evening before departure, we consulted several current weather maps and sectional maps of Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, North Carolina. The morning of the flight, Jim as the pilot in command, once again checked various weather websites on his home computer for the flight area and consulted the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) website, looking for Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR). We were not required to file a flight plan because we were going to be using visual flight rules (VFR) for our journey. Jim conducted a thorough pre-flight inspection of the airplane, a Cessna 150, its communication devices and navigational devices and filled it with fuel prior to departure.
We agreed that Jim, as the pilot in command, would supervise the flight while Troy would fly the airplane, which he did during the entire flight. In an effort to be extra careful, and wishing to avoid the restricted area of Camp David during our flight, we over compensated by taking a more than anticipated southerly route, which consequently caused us to infringe upon the Washington, D.C., restricted zones. After an undetermined amount of time, a Blackhawk helicopter appeared off to the right side of our airplane and attempted to communicate with us using a hand-held sign indicating the emergency radio frequency we were to use to receive instructions.
Although our radio had been working during the flight, which we know, because we were able to monitor other aircraft communications, we were unable to communicate with the Blackhawk helicopter on the frequency indicated. A helicopter crew member used hand signals to indicate a second frequency option. We tuned to that frequency, identified our aircraft, and requested further instructions. We received no response on either of the indicated frequencies despite repeated attempts by both of us.
The helicopter then disappeared off to the right and within a short time thereafter, two F-16 fighter planes appeared and began making repeated passes. After making several passes, the F-16 planes dropped warning flares. In response to the dropped flares, we made a 90-degree turn to the right to a westerly direction.
At this point, for the first time, we were able to visually identify our location as being in a Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ). Once again, a helicopter appeared, whereupon we were then able to establish two-way radio communication on the original emergency frequency that we had been instructed by placard to use by the first helicopter crew. We were then instructed to stay on our current heading and proceed to the Frederick, Md., airport, where we landed safely and were subsequently met by representatives from civil, state and federal authorities and agencies. We were treated exceptionally well and proper, and with great courtesy after we explained what had happened.
On a personal note, we would like to sincerely thank everyone for their prayers and their expressions of concern for us with regard to this incident. We very sincerely regret all of the disruption that this event has caused for so many people in our nation's capital. EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Sheaffer, 69, retired, is a licensed pilot residing with his wife, Joyce, in Lititz, PA.
Troy Martin, 36, is a local business owner and student pilot with 30 hours of flight time who lives in Akron, PA, with his wife Jill and two young sons. Both men are active in their communities and belong to the Experimental Aircraft Association, Chapter 540 as well as the Vintage Aero Club.
A principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Joseph, McDermott & Reiner, P.C., Mark T. McDermott is engaged in general practice with an emphasis on litigation, aviation law, and pilot medical certification. Previously, he served as an attorney with the Federal Aviation Administration. He is past president of the National Transportation Safety Board Bar Association and currently serves as the association's Vice President. McDermott has been retained by Jim Sheaffer to represent him in the FAA's investigation of this matter.
May 20, 2005