WASHINGTON – In an effort to avoid the chaos seen last week in the nation's capital, officials will give pilots who inadvertently fly into Washington's restricted airspace another signal that they've made a wrong turn.
Officials with the North American Air Defense (search) told reporters on Tuesday that the new Visual Warning System, set to go online on Saturday, is like another layer of security for the city. If a pilot violates the restricted airspace over the national capital area, which covers more than 2,000 square miles, a laser beam will zero in on the aircraft.
"It's a set of alternating lights that we can focus on a particular aircraft that allow us to get his attention and let him know that he is violating restricted airspace," said NORAD Vice Commander Col. Ed Daniel.
The laser, which flashes two red signals then a green one, will be directed from a command center in the capital, warning the plane to turn away. The light show is distinct from other signals used by the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control.
"It should get the guy, people's attention out there and it won't look like anything they've seen before," Daniel said.
The number of lasers and their exact locations are classified, but NORAD officials say they are a clear warning to pilots that they have entered restricted air space without authorization and cannot be contacted on radio by air traffic control.
The lasers are precise, being trained on the single plane in question, so as not to distract other aircraft.
The visual warning system has been in the making for more than a year, long before the incident last week in which a two-seater Cessna plane strayed into Washington's no-fly zone and forced the evacuation of the Capitol and White House.
Since April, a major public awareness campaign has been launched by the FAA and various pilots associations to promote the new system. Pilot groups agree that ultimately the onus will be on the pilots to stay up to date, familiarize themselves with the VWS and to understand that when they see the flashing laser they should turn away from it, since their new direction will lead them out of restricted air space.
"If you're in the air and you see the light, you're going to know something is wrong," said Melissa Rudinger of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "Now the key to understanding it and making the right decision to turn around is what we are trying to get the word out about."
Therein, however, may lie the problem. The pilot and passenger in the Cessna last week did not follow the rules — no flight plan was filed with the FAA and no radio contact was established with air traffic control. In a situation like this, NORAD officials concede that no system is foolproof.
"Can I tell if it will be 100 percent? No, it won't be. But it is another tool, another layer in this defense force to try to prevent somebody from getting to downtown D.C.," Daniel said.
A NORAD official said the agency has the hardest time reaching pilots who have been flying the longest because they don't think they need to check updated warnings and advisories. Not surprisingly, those are the pilots who violate restricted airspace most often. Officials say they hope the VWS will at the very least prompt pilots to contact air traffic conrol.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Catherine Herridge.