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Errant plane causes brief White House lockdown

A SMALL, single-engine plane strayed into restricted air space near the US Capitol yesterday, forcing anxious officials to place the White House in temporary lockdown and start the evacuation of the Capitol.

The episode was over within minutes as two F-16 fighter jets and two US Coast Guard helicopters were dispatched to intercept the plane and escort it to an airport in Maryland, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. US Northern Command spokesman Michael Kucharek said the two helicopters established communications with the pilot.

The owner of the Indian Head Airport in nearby Charles County, Maryland, said the pilot and his wife were en route from Maine, the most northeastern US state to North Carolina in the South to visit the couple's daughter. Owner Gil Bauserman said a technology problem, rather than anything nefarious, forced the plane to enter restricted air space to prompt the swift military response.

"It was just a navigation mistake, the GPS went and the pilot got confused," Bauserman said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"This has happened many times. The restricted zone in D.C., all it does is catch poor innocent people. They've never caught a terrorist; it's just people making a mistake," he said.

The military notified the airport at 12:45 p.m. EDT (1645 GMT) that the plane would be making an unscheduled landing, according to Bauserman. The plane landed 15 minutes later, escorted by the F-16s and the helicopters. The FAA identified the plane as a Piper Tri-Pacer.

The airport, with a runway of about 3,000 feet, is about 12 miles south of Andrews Air Force Base.

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama was "briefly relocated" during the incident. Gibbs would not say where Obama was taken.

Shortly after the incident, the president kept a scheduled afternoon appearance in the Diplomatic Reception Room to discuss affordable college education.

The Senate was in session, and briefly recessed. The House of Representatives was not meeting.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said the Capitol's alert level was briefly elevated but quickly returned to normal.

Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley said the security measures were taken "out of an abundance of caution."

Across the street from the Capitol, there was no interruption of a House hearing at which former Vice President Al Gore was testifying about climate change legislation.

Authorities have been on high alert for planes entering air space in and around major government buildings since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, there have been several incidents in which planes have strayed into the restricted air space. In June 2004, a small plane carrying then-Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher entered restricted air space as the Capitol prepared for the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan.

Police warned of an impending crash and yelled at mourners, including lawmakers and dignitaries, to run faster as they evacuated the Capitol. Women threw off high heels to move faster.

Two F-15 fighter planes already patrolling in anticipation of the Reagan funeral were diverted to intercept the potentially hostile aircraft. Later reports found that the scrambling of the jets was unnecessary, caused by miscommunications among various agencies.

In May 2005, an amateur pilot accidentally flew into prohibited space. There was another brief evacuation of the Capitol a month later, again when a small plane entered restricted air space.


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