If you were watching todays edition of Happening Now, you probably saw our coverage of the partial evacuation of the U.S. Capitol building. Details are still coming in, but it appears a pilot flew into the restricted airspace over Washington without the proper authorization. In this post-9/11 era, thats a huge mistake for any pilot to make.
You might have heard me mention, after that breaking news and near the end of our second hour, one of the scariest events in my time as a pilotan event that involved my little Cessna, restricted airspace, andJanes house!Heres what happened: I enjoy taking aerial photographs of the homes of friends (and co-anchors!); they make great conversation pieces and, therefore, great gifts. I wanted to surprise Jane with an aerial photo of her home for Christmas.
The day Id chosen was perfect for such a mission; clear skies and low humidity. It was also the day on which the Pope was in the U.S. and visiting a location not far from Janes house.
I took a flight instructor with me so that he could handle the flying while I handled the camera. We were aware of the restricted airspaceit was a circle, 8 miles in diameter as I recall, over the Pope. Janes place was a mile or so outside the closed airspace so we circled it a number of times, I took my photos, and off we flew to a second place I wanted to photograph.
As we were wrapping up shooting that second location we got a somewhat ominous call from an air traffic controller; he wanted to know our tail number, what we were doing and where we intended to land. Lots of questions that seemed way out of the norm. He gave us an F.A.A. phone number to call once we were back on the ground.
We landed at my home airport; I noticed as we taxied to the ramp a number of burly uniformed men holding automatic weapons standing nearby. Block letters on their bulletproof vests i-dd their agencies; FBI, ATF, Secret Service, county police. I quipped to the instructor, "Look! They sent us a greeting party!" I thought I was making a joke. Then, as I shut down the engine, the burly posse advanced toward us. Nobody among them was laughing.
They inspected the aircraft and escorted us to a conference room inside. Names were taken, questions asked, pilot licenses examined. We dialed the F.A.A. number wed been told to call.
Turns out a police helicopter, in the air to protect the Pope, had seen us circling over Chez Skinner and thought we might have violated the restricted airspace. I never saw it, but that chopper apparently chased us, took down my tail number and radioed it back to HQ. Thus began the scariest moments of my years as a pilot.
It was all much ado about nothing. The F.A.A checked the radar tapes; the man on the other end of the phone said, "Nah, theyre fine, there was no violation." We had not strayed into the Popes protected airspace. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Afterward, a burly Secret Service agent walked up to me. Head shaved, body armor making him look even more barrel-chested than he was, hand on his automatic weaponhe stared at me intently. This guy was scary! Whatever it was he had to say, I knew I didnt want to hear it; I prepared myself for the kind of verbal tirade Ive sometimes heard the Secret Service dish out. He opened his mouth. I winced. Then he spoke but four words:
"We LOVE Fox News!"
And with that, the posse disappeared. Crisis averted. I would fly another day.
Ohand after all that? I didnt get the photo. You see, it can be difficult to recognize a place from a thousand feet up.
I took a picture of the wrong house.