Washington, May 11 (Reuters): Fighter jets scrambled over Washington and authorities hurriedly evacuated the White House and the US Congress today when an unidentified plane roamed into restricted airspace, sparking fears of a September 11-style attack.
The light private Cessna ignored calls from air traffic controllers and entered the restricted zone around Washington, coming within three miles of the Capitol before turning away, authorities said.
The plane’s approach sent at least two F-16 fighter jets into the air over the US capital and hundreds of staff and tourists into the streets outside the Capitol building, White House and the Supreme Court in an urgent evacuation.
President George W. Bush was not at the White House at the time, having gone on a bicycle ride at a wildlife preserve in the suburbs. Vice-President Dick Cheney was in the west wing and was quickly moved to a secure location, an administration official said.
The Cessna, which turned away from the Capitol after it approached then turned back, was escorted to Frederick, Maryland, and the pilot was taken into police custody, a Homeland Security official said.
“Get out, get out,” Capitol police shouted to lawmakers and staff as they moved through the building and offices, clearing the floors and galleries in both chambers.
US senators debating highway legislation dropped their papers and ran from the Senate chamber. House of Representatives lawmakers were in the midst of a vote when the evacuation order came.
The incident prompted the US government’s joint operations center to send an“alert” to White House staff. “Do not leave building. Proceed to interior halls and lower levels. Avoid windows,” the alert read.
Capitol police swiftly moved senators, aides, lobbyists and journalists toward Union Station, about two blocks away. The police used bullhorns to order onlookers to “stay away from the building.”
The Secret Service later gave the “all clear” within minutes of the scare and allowed staff to return to their offices in the White House. Capitol police also issued an “all clear” bulletin for Congress.
A homeland security official said the Cessna was escorted by jets and helicopters and ordered to land in Frederick, just outside the restricted airspace around Washington.
State police took the pilot into custody.
The official was not sure if there were any other people on board the airplane or where it was travelling from.
”Standard procedures were followed,” the official said.
Pilots are not allowed to fly into airspace set up by the Federal Aviation Administration after the September 11, 2001, hijacked airliner attacks.
If warnings are ignored and the aircraft remains in restricted airspace it could be shot down. All pilots with permission to fly into or through Washington airspace ' mainly commercial flights ' must transmit special identification codes to air traffic controllers.
Since the September 11 attacks, various Capitol buildings have been evacuated for a range of security reasons, from fears of anthrax to bomb threats.
On June 9, 2004, the Capitol also was evacuated after a plane carrying the governor of Kentucky to former President Ronald Reagan's funeral entered the no-fly zone.
The Capitol was also partially evacuated last month when an Australian citizen stood outside the Capitol with two black suitcases and demanded to see Bush.