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Flight of Mistakes

Two pilots' harrowing tale of violating the nation's most restricted airspace

Publisher's note: Every month, the most popular feature in AOPA Pilot is "Never Again," where pilots learn from the mistakes of others. Normally these mistakes involve only the pilot and his or her passengers. The event presented here has affected all pilots and has both stifled and delayed your association's attempt to reduce the airspace restrictions imposed since the tragic 2001 terrorist attacks. In no way do we carry this story to condone the actions of two AOPA members, but instead use it to illustrate that in today's environment, careless and innocent actions can have grave outcomes for general aviation.

What should have been an easy flight on a clear spring day became a horrific and nearly deadly experience for two Pennsylvania men. All of us in general aviation are still feeling the effects of that flight, which was to have been from Smoketown, Pennsylvania, to a fly-in at Lumberton, North Carolina. Instead, their Cessna 150 strayed into the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that surrounds Washington, D.C., and ultimately into the 15-mile flight-restricted zone (FRZ) over the very center of the capital. Flying within a mile of the heart of the federal government, the Cessna 150 took a path that led to the evacuation of the White House and U.S. Capitol. The student pilot on board finally figured out where they were when he spotted the Washington Monument — seconds after an F-16 fired warning flares near them. The 150 was escorted to an outlying airport where the two men were forced to the ground at gunpoint as they exited the airplane — all captured on live television shot from media helicopters hovering overhead. The ensuing media frenzy haunted the men for weeks afterward. Ten days later the FAA revoked the private pilot's certificate.

Radar plot of the ill-fated flight

All of general aviation has been tarred by this incident. The FAA has proposed that all pilots operating in the region undergo mandatory training to fly in or even near the ADIZ. Congress has proposed legislation that includes fines of $100,000 to $500,000 for ADIZ violators and confiscation of aircraft. Security agencies have used this incident as a reason not to relax ADIZ rules. In fact, at least partly as a result of this incursion, the FAA has proposed that the ADIZ be made permanent. More than 20,000 comments have been filed about the proposal, the vast majority of them against the Draconian airspace grab.

Troy Martin
Troy Martin
Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer

How could such a flight go so wrong? After dozens of e-mail messages from AOPA warning of airspace restrictions and reminding pilots of the rules surrounding flight in the ADIZ, how could a pilot not know about this especially restricted block of airspace? Did the pilots ignore the intercepting helicopter and fighters or did the national media get it wrong? Did the government overreact in its response to the two-seat trainer? Four months after that fateful May 11, 2005, flight, AOPA Pilot spent an afternoon hearing firsthand from Troy D. Martin, the student pilot on board, about what went wrong and how you can avoid a similar encounter. Six weeks later we met separately with the pilot in command, Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer, to hear his recollection of the events.

The preflight

While the media might have you believe that the pair was flying on a whim and with outdated charts, they were wrong, according to Martin, who holds a degree in aircraft engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The two had in fact met the night before at Sheaffer's home to plan the flight, using current sectional charts that Sheaffer said he purchased the week before. Sheaffer, now age 70, a private pilot (and not a flight instructor, despite what was reported in the media), had crafted a radio navigation plan that showed what radials the pair needed to fly from various VORs to avoid flying into the ADIZ and P-40, the prohibited airspace that surrounds Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland north of the capital. However, as Martin, a 36-year-old student pilot with about 30 hours of training, later learned, Sheaffer did not understand that the ADIZ extends from the surface to 18,000 feet, covering essentially the same footprint as the Washington Tri-Area Class B airspace.

"I didn't realize that there was an ADIZ around Washington, or otherwise I would never have gone there," confirmed Sheaffer. When the two took off that day, it had been about 20 years since Sheaffer had made a cross-country flight. Although he owns a Cessna 172 that he is rebuilding, Sheaffer had not done much flying for the past two decades. In November 2004 he purchased an interest in the Cessna 150 he and Martin were flying as a way to get back into aviation while he completed the 172 in his retirement. Although he had not been actively flying, he and his wife often volunteered at the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In and other fly-ins and were involved in the local EAA chapter. In fact, the reason for the flight was that Sheaffer was planning to volunteer at the Mid-Atlantic Fly-In and Sport Aviation Convention in Lumberton that weekend.

Sheaffer was aware of the Washington Class B airspace and planned to fly underneath the outer rings of the Class B, as pilots can with all other Class B areas. However, to fly in the ADIZ, VFR pilots must file a special flight plan with a local flight service station, get a clearance before takeoff, squawk a unique transponder code, and be in constant radio communication with air traffic control. Even then, GA pilots at the time were expressly prohibited from flying inside the 15-mile flight-restricted zone centered on the Washington Monument.

The two men had first met a week earlier when they attended a meeting of their flying club. The two, along with several others, form the Vintage Aero Club, which owns the Cessna 150K, N5826G. The airplane is based at Smoketown Airport, a privately owned, public-use airport near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

At the club meeting, Sheaffer mentioned that he was taking the airplane to a North Carolina fly-in the following week. Martin, who was just about ready to begin the cross-country phase of his flight training, asked if he could tag along to observe. "I said to him, 'I am a student pilot and I am just at the place where I am ready to start my cross-countries. This would be a really good opportunity for me to see how that's done.'"

Sheaffer agreed and the two met the next week at Sheaffer's house to plan the flight. They checked weather using a Web site, but did not get an official weather briefing, and Sheaffer showed Martin how he had written a radio navigation plan in a spiral notebook, showing the name of the navaid, the frequency, Morse code identifier, and the to-and-from radials. Sheaffer owned a Palm personal digital assistant with Control Vision Anywhere Map moving-map software and a GPS receiver that he planned to take on the flight. However, as he and Martin learned the next morning, the cigarette lighter in the airplane had been disconnected as a result of an airworthiness directive affecting all Cessna 150s that did not have a fuse installed in the wire powering the lighter. Because there was no power available on the airplane, Sheaffer left the GPS in his truck the next day instead of taking it along.

Off and immediately lost

The two had planned to meet at 10 a.m. the next day. Heavy fog had blanketed the region in the early morning hours. Sheaffer checked the Web site again for a weather update before leaving home, but did not call flight service. Once at the airport, he completed the preflight and planned to call flight service from the terminal building. However, workers were installing a new floor in the building and the telephone was not accessible. As a result, neither pilot called flight service for an official weather briefing or to file a VFR flight plan.

When Martin returned from a rest-room break before getting ready to depart, he was surprised to find Sheaffer's shirt dangled over the back of the copilot's seat. It was clear that Sheaffer was expecting Martin to fly. "And that was a deal breaker for me," said Martin. "I was very uncomfortable. He is not an instructor. This is not a training flight. I can't log the time. I wasn't intending on doing anything but riding along."

Martin reminded Sheaffer that he was a student pilot simply looking to go along to observe. "And he said — and I remember this so clearly — he said, 'I probably have more time flying in the right seat than you have flying in the left.' And I thought about that for a moment. Then I figured that he was probably right."

Sheaffer admits that he assumed Martin knew more about navigation than Martin actually knew. Sheaffer, who learned to fly in the 1970s, remembers that when he was a 30-hour student pilot he was well into the cross-country phase of his flying and had even flown to Charlotte, North Carolina, on his own. "I based his experience on what I knew at 30 hours." Martin's 30 hours of flight instruction were over a two-year period, and today's flight-training curriculum tends to introduce navigation concepts and cross-country flying later than did the curriculum in the 1970s.

The two discussed who would do what and ultimately decided that Martin would sit in the left seat and fly, including the takeoffs and landings. Sheaffer would handle navigation and communication from the right seat.

The pair left Smoketown at about 11 a.m. with Martin taking up a heading to the southwest. "Not ever, not once did he give me a specific heading or action to take as [a] pilot in command [might do for] someone helping him fly the airplane. And I had asked at different points in the flight," said Martin.

Sheaffer recalls that the flight proceeded to the southwest with his intent to intercept the radial between the Lancaster VOR and the Westminster VOR. Minutes after takeoff, the flight crossed the Susquehanna River. Sheaffer pointed to a hydroelectric dam on the river and called it by name. But Martin knew that the dam was in fact a different dam. So already there was confusion about where they were. According to Martin, Sheaffer was turning the omni-bearing selector on the VOR, attempting to establish where they were relative to the course that Sheaffer had laid out.

A few minutes later, Martin recognized the intersection of interstates 83 and 695 — the Baltimore beltway — which is located inside the ADIZ. From there they flew west and saw a pair of television broadcast towers. Locating them on the chart, the two then understood where they were — beneath the outer ring of the Class B. But they didn't realize they were also inside the ADIZ.

Martin took up a heading of west, with Sheaffer believing that the change would put them back on his planned route. Sheaffer, thinking they had passed the Westminster VOR without intercepting his planned course, tuned in his next waypoint, the Linden VOR — located west of the Washington Class B — and centered the course deviation indicator.

"I was comfortable with where we were and where we were heading, with the understanding that he was going to do some pilot stuff with the VOR and get us on his plan," said Martin. "And if that had happened, we would have been in one of the situations where we flew into the ADIZ for a period of time and probably were going to have a short phone call and maybe a small violation or a suspension, or maybe not."


The two had no indication that anything was amiss until some time later when a Black Hawk helicopter appeared off the right side of the airplane. "It was very close," remarked Martin. "Both doors were off. It was brown, dark brown, [and] shiny. [We] easily read 'Homeland Security.' In the door — and we could see right through the helicopter — [was] a very large well-armed individual. Unmistakable. We clearly recognized that the Black Hawk is an authority.... I am not sure if we're about ready to enter a place where we shouldn't be and they are kind of heading us off, or if we're already in a spot where we shouldn't be. It's unclear to me exactly what we should do."

Someone in the helicopter held up a sign that clearly said on it "121.5." Sheaffer, who said he knew immediately that 121.5 MHz was the emergency frequency, tuned it in.

"All that we hear is a beeping sound like a garbage truck backing up," said Martin. "So we try to listen in between. Do we hear a voice behind that? And there is nothing except the beeping. And so Jim broadcast on that frequency, communicating that we are Two-Six-Golf and we see the Black Hawk, and [we] ask them, 'What do you want us to do?' We wait and hear nothing other than the beeping."

Martin and Sheaffer each tuned the radio, thinking that perhaps the other had done something wrong. The beeping continued. Later the two learned that an emergency locator transmitter was in operation nearby.

After a few more minutes, the person in the helicopter used hand signals to tell the two lost pilots to tune to 123.45 MHz. They did. "And we listened intently — to nothing," said Martin. Sheaffer adjusted the volume and squelch and still they heard nothing. Martin continued, "Now I'm starting to wonder what's going on. It seems odd to me that they gave us a frequency that they are not on. We cannot hear them and they can't hear us. I know that when we were at Smoketown our radio worked." Sheaffer confirmed that they communicated with another pilot before leaving the airport.

"My thinking was that we were probably approaching P-40 and that we should be heading to the south to clear, and with no instruction forthcoming we found ourselves flying more and more toward the south," continued Martin. Yet a southerly heading would take them deeper into the ADIZ. Sheaffer said he knew that they were not in the Camp David airspace, although he didn't tell that to Martin until after the flight. Sheaffer, busy attempting to communicate with the helicopter, didn't realize that Martin had turned more to the south.

"But out of the blue, unexpectedly, the helicopter just rolled over and dropped away, just disappeared. It just disappears, the kind of thing that when you think about it, it really needs a sound effect," said Martin.

"My first reaction was, 'Oh thank heavens. They've left us alone. Maybe we've cleared.' Obviously that wasn't the real deal because maybe a second or two later two F-16s come past the left side." Martin describes it as "completely unmistakable. I can't imagine anything more scaring."

Sheaffer remembers it differently, with the jets coming overhead, not flying beside the airplane. "I didn't know what to do," said Sheaffer. "If they had both peeled off and went the same direction, we would have followed them, but they split off and went opposite directions.

"At that point, I knew that we were down in the heart of Washington. I knew it was a restricted area," said Sheaffer.

"Obviously we were where we shouldn't be but what is it that we should do?" asked Martin. "The jets mean business. They are armed.... It's not interesting anymore. It's not going to be just a short conversation anymore. It's got a whole new level of seriousness to it."

According to Martin, the jets set up a racetrack pattern off the left side of the Cessna, flying by as slowly as they could. In the Cessna, Martin asked Sheaffer what they should do, but Sheaffer didn't seem to know.

"And at some point the flare came out of the F-16 and it was bright red — again, not something you can mistake," said Martin.

"We are obviously in a bad place, someplace where we shouldn't be, and I had no way to know how to change the situation. At that point, when the flares came out, I went into almost an altered state, [an] out-of-body kind of experience, and [into] just an exercise in 'what do I know is factual here.' I know we were flying in a straight line for a chunk of time. I know that we were intercepted by a Black Hawk. I know that they appeared to, and we also definitely tried to, get radio communication and [that] that did not happen, and then we were met with F-16s, and now those F-16s were dropping flares. My analysis says the next step in this sequence is I'm going to get shot down. And in that instant Troy D. Martin said to himself, 'Something has to change, something has got to change.'

"And so, as a right-handed person, I made a 90-degree turn to the right.

"As I rolled out of that turn to the west, I saw the Washington Monument. And that would have been my fifth 'oh my God' reaction and my fifth 'can it get worse' kind of reaction in the last 20 minutes. I remember thinking [that] there is the Washington Monument. I'm at 3,000 feet, 100 miles an hour. I'm making a mental map of downtown D.C."

Martin recognized that in about 15 seconds he was going to fly over the White House. "Now it had occurred to me at that point to make another turn but...I really didn't want to do anything erratic with the airplane that might be construed as an offensive measure. And so I decided that like it or not, the best move was to retain control of the airplane and continue with the westerly heading and just grit my teeth and wait for it. And I am telling you, I really, fully expected to be dead. I figured [that] in the next 15 seconds we were going to be shot down either by the F-16s or maybe a surface-launched missile on the ground at the White House or some other location.... I remember thinking, 'This is a really unhappy way to end my life.' Get lost and get shot down by your own government. Not really what I had in mind but I was also powerless to do anything about it."

When asked if he felt like they might get shot down, Sheaffer said, "No. I didn't think that the military could justify shooting down two lost pilots. I didn't believe they could tell the rest of the country that they could shoot down two pilots."

Shortly after the incident, one of the F-16 pilots told a news agency that Homeland Security authorities had determined early on that the 150 was not a serious threat and that he never received an order to shoot down the airplane.

Fearing any turn would be regarded as an aggression, the two Cessna pilots continued to the west until they spotted Washington Dulles International Airport, located west of Washington. Fearing a conflict with airliners, Martin made another right turn, with the F-16s still circling nearby.

Can you hear me now?

Shortly after the turn to the north, the Black Hawk helicopter appeared again and they could hear someone call them on the radio. They are not sure if it was the helicopter or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cessna Citation that was overhead, coordinating the intercept. When asked by AOPA Pilot to clarify which aircraft it was, DHS officials chose not to comment. "And so," said Martin, "they asked us what our fuel status was, which I thought was a very caring question. I did some quick math and I said to Jim, 'Tell him we got an hour plus reserve.'" Based on conversations later with government officials, both men believe the helicopter's radios did not work — or at least did not work on civilian frequencies — when it first approached the 150. Martin said he was told that during the ordeal, the helicopter landed, fixed the radio, and then returned to re-intercept the airplane. Sheaffer said he was told twice by a DHS official that the helicopter had radio problems and had to land. Again, DHS chose not to comment on any problems with the radios.

Meanwhile, the voice on the radio told them to continue north until they saw the Frederick, Maryland, airport and to land there.

As the Cessna approached Frederick, Martin said, the crew of one of the aircraft involved in the intercept announced to the many aircraft in the pattern that the airport was closed, causing the traffic to depart the area. After some confusion in the pattern, Martin ultimately landed the 150. "I am not sure if that got captured in the video or not, but it was a good landing. I am proud of it."

A dozen government vehicles raced up to the airplane as it rolled to a stop on the runway. Armed law enforcement officials from numerous agencies descended on the Cessna. The two pilots were ordered out of the airplane and told to lie facedown on the pavement while they were handcuffed.

After hours of questioning by various agencies, including the Secret Service, the two were released. They rented a car and drove home, only to find their houses surrounded by media. They sneaked through neighbors' back yards to Martin's patio, where his wife let them in. Sheaffer spent the night because he didn't want to face the media at his house.


Ten days later, the FAA issued an emergency order revoking Sheaffer's pilot certificate. The eight-page order accused Sheaffer of seven violations of federal regulations, including carrying passengers when he had not conducted three takeoffs and landings within the previous 90 days, operating improperly in numerous restricted and prohibited airspace areas, and violating 91.13(a), the usual careless and reckless regulation that nets nearly every pilot who gets cited for anything. The FAA essentially considered Martin a passenger. As a student pilot, he received no enforcement action.

Sheaffer said that he was five days beyond the 90-day maximum for making three takeoffs and landings before carrying passengers. He had been in Florida for most of the winter and didn't realize that the 90 days had passed.

Meanwhile, Martin has begun flight training again, resolving to not take to the skies ever again without a working GPS receiver with a moving map.

Sheaffer concurs. "I won't ever fly without a GPS."

"I feel [a] certain responsibility to help other pilots not find themselves in that spot," says Martin. "Certainly if you are going to fly in an area with restricted airspace or anywhere near an area with restricted airspace, if you find yourself not exactly sure where you are, then you fix it right off. Don't let the situation deteriorate before you get some help."

He also will ask more questions before he flies with someone else. "I am going to understand how much they have flown recently. I am going to understand exactly what they mean when they say they have done a weather check."

While both pilots admit to making mistakes, they have ideas on how the intercept crews might help anyone who makes a similar mistake. Martin suggests that the helicopter crews carry a simple sign that they can hold that says "Follow Me." That alone would have allowed them to be turned away from the heart of the ADIZ miles sooner than they were.

Sheaffer agrees. When the helicopter peeled away, "if they had had a sign that said 'Follow Me' we could have followed them and landed at Gaithersburg."

Martin plans to complete his flight training and hopes to safely make the flight to that North Carolina fly-in next May as a private pilot.

Sheaffer said he absolutely is going to attempt to get his pilot certificate back next spring. To do that he will essentially have to go through a complete private pilot program and take another FAA checkride. He can't apply for the certificate until after 10 months have passed.

A short time after the incident, Sheaffer called AOPA President Phil Boyer to apologize for the problems his mistakes have caused all of general aviation.

The event was the result of not one or two but a litany of serious lapses of judgment. As a result of that blundering flight on May 11, 2005, all GA pilots in the Washington, D.C., region face the daunting prospects of a permanent ADIZ; and if that happens, the security agencies may well decide that such airspace belongs over every major metropolitan area — a painful example of what can happen when pilots take off ill-prepared.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines
Thomas B Haines
Contributor (former Editor in Chief)
Contributor and former AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.

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