April 23, 2004
On the week of April 7th, Washington D.C. became a backdrop to two unannounced, and unnerving, flyovers by military aircraft. In the first incident, two D.C. Air National Guard F-16s escorted a C-38 and C-40 around noontime above the capital for an air-to-air photo shoot. The photos were being taken for Guard recruitment and marketing efforts. The C-40 is the military version of a 737, so the sight of two fighters escorting what appeared to be a commercial jet flying low in a no-fly zone was quite disturbing to tourists and residents alike, The C-38 is a small business jet and served as the photo platform. While the D.C. Guard has conducted air defense exercises over the city in the past, authorities have made a point to announce them in advance in order to avoid causing panic. This time there was no announcement.
On Saturday, April 10th, a pair of Army helicopters flew approximately 40 feet above the Potomac Tidal Basin, kicking up spray and rocking recreational boaters, soaking a few of them. An Army spokesman said the helicopters were involved in a promotional demonstration but couldnt say exactly what was being promoted. The FAA said while there was no specific request for the flyover, but existing regulations permitted aircraft over the area and the military helicopters have been tracking aircraft in D.C. airspace. While BlackHawk type helicopters are often seen flying around Washington typically the (former) Customs Service machines flying low-and-slow air patrols to intercept small planes they are usually found at altitudes of 500 feet or higher.
Across North America, NORAD has conducted over 1,700 intercepts between September 11, 2001 and January 2004. DC's most sensitive no-fly zone, the Capital and White House, was penetrated an average of 31 times per month before the Blackhawks were deployed. Now the unauthorized flights into the forbidden zone are about twice a month. The Department of Homeland Security conducted two major exercises in December 2003 to test D.C. air defenses, a tabletop (simulation) exercise and another that lasted several days using real aircraft (including some acting as "hijacked" planes) to stress-test all the participants, including air defense missiles and artillery, Secret Service protection, and FAA communications. Under certain circumstances, however, planes can still get through the air defense zones without being intercepted. - Doug Mohney