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US Senate briefly recesses after plane scare
Updated: 2005-05-24 09:38

The US Senate recessed for a brief period Monday night after an unidentified plane entered Washington's restricted airspace, two weeks after another airplane caused emergency evacuations of the White House and Capitol.

The pilot of the earlier plane has now lost his license as an "unacceptable risk to safety," the Federal Aviation Administration said earlier in the day.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., right, exits the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, in Washington Monday, May 23, 2005.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., right, exits the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, in Washington Monday, May 23, 2005. [AP]

There was no evacuation on Monday. The private Cessna was intercepted by military jets and later landed in Gaithersburg, Md., north of the capital, the Transportation Security Administration said.

At the Capitol, where senators were heading into an all-night debate over filibusters and judicial nominations, Republican leader Bill Frist called for a recess just after 6 p.m. EDT and left the chamber. Others present did not leave.

Seven minutes later, Capitol Police sent out an e-mail reading:

"An unidentified aircraft violated the restricted airspace and was escorted out of the area."

Soon after debate resumed.

The Cessna was intercepted by military jets after it flew into restricted airspace without the required transponder signal, according to Transportation Security Administration spokesman Mark Hatfield.

Meanwhile, the government lifted the pilot's license of Hayden L. "Jim" Sheaffer because of the May 11 errant flight that led to the scrambling of military aircraft and the panicked evacuation of thousands of people.

Sheaffer's passenger, 36-year-old Troy Martin, who had logged only 30 hours of flight time, was flying the plane when the military aircraft intercepted it, the FAA said.

Revoking Sheaffer's license "reflects the seriousness in which we view all restricted airspace violations and, in this case, the level of incursion into restricted airspace," FAA spokesman Greg Martin said.

According to the FAA, Sheaffer, 69, wasn't even supposed to have a passenger in the single-engine Cessna in the first place. He hadn't met the requirement to do so: three takeoffs and three landings within the previous 90 days of the flight.

He didn't take the most basic steps required of pilots before flying a plane, the FAA said. He failed to check the weather report before leaving Smoketown, Pa., and he didn't check the FAA's "Notices to Airmen," which informs pilots of airspace restrictions and how to respond to a military aircraft.

When he got lost, he didn't call air traffic control or a flight service station to establish his location, which was 40 to 45 miles south of where he actually was, the FAA said.

The plane was intercepted by a U.S. Customs Service Black Hawk helicopter and a Citation jet, and then by two F-16 fighters that dropped four flares.

"At no time during any of these events did you exercise the judgment to take physical control or command of the aircraft from your inexperienced passenger," the FAA said.

Though hundreds of people have mistakenly flown into Washington's restricted airspace, the FAA rarely revokes a pilot's license for such an offense. In Sheaffer's case, the agency determined Sheaffer "constitutes an unacceptable risk to safety in air commerce."

The agency said no action would be taken against Martin.

Private planes are not allowed to fly in the Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ — an area of about 2,000 square miles radiating from the three airports around Washington — unless they have a special transponder code and maintain radio contact with the FAA.

They're not allowed at all within the Flight Restricted Zone, or FRZ, about a 16-mile radius around the Washington Monument.

Sheaffer can reapply for his license in a year.

Telephone calls seeking comment from both Sheaffer and Martin were not immediately returned for comment.

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