By Spencer S. Hsu
Pilots who violate restricted airspace over Washington would be liable for civil fines of up to $100,000 under legislation that is to be introduced today by Republican and Democratic House leaders.
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) want to toughen penalties for pilots who breach a 16-mile "no-fly zone" around the capital. Their bill would also fine pilots as much as $5,000 if they ignore flight rules in a wider Air Defense Identification Zone that extends up to 50 miles from the capital.
Many lawmakers have voiced displeasure at false alarms and panicky dispersals of Capitol offices prompted by violations of the unique multi-agency air defense system over Washington. Evacuations followed incursions by a Canadian charter Beech King Air 350 on June 29, a small Cessna on May 11 and a state police plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) to former president Ronald Reagan's funeral in June 2004.
Members also warned that errant pilots face a growing danger of being shot down by air defenses, which include military fighter jets on intermittent patrol, armed customs aircraft, ground-to-air missiles, radar and ground-based laser warning systems.
"The message we're sending of course is that pilots of small planes . . . need to be very, very careful when they fly in the Washington, D.C., area," said Hoyer, the House's second-ranking Democrat and Southern Maryland representative. "This area will be increasingly dangerous to pilots. We have come close to planes being shot down. That would of course be a tragedy. . . . The situation is a very, very dangerous one for those pilots and frankly for anyone on the ground if a plane is shot down."
Phil Boyer, president of the 405,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said the organization wants to fend off stricter penalties and is working with lawmakers to address the problem through mandatory education. He said experience suggests that stricter penalties will not guarantee compliance or awareness by all pilots.
"We're concerned about increasing the penalty versus solving the problem," Boyer said. "Don't we as pilots . . . or anyone in the public know that right after September 11, 2001, the president ordered that any aircraft could be shot down? Doesn't the ultimate penalty already exist?"
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency is aware of the proposed legislation. In testimony on Capitol Hill last week, FAA Deputy Administrator Robert A. Sturgell said the agency is planning to require training and certification of pilots, beginning with those who operate within 100 miles of Washington, and is looking at increasing penalties.
Homeland Security officials reported that 3,495 incursions of D.C. airspace and 166 violations of the no-fly zone occurred since January 2003. But only one pilot was found to have acted intentionally, Sturgell said. His license was revoked.
Around Washington, virtually all air traffic is prohibited within the inner 16-mile Flight Restriction Zone, except for commercial flights to and from Reagan National Airport.
Within the broader identification zone, which extends about 2,000 square miles around the area, pilots of private aircraft must identify their aircraft, activate identification beacons and stay in two-way-radio contact with air controllers.
Hoyer and Blunt's proposed "Capitol Airspace Enforcement Act" would set a civil penalty of $10,000 to $100,000 and a license suspension of two to five years for pilots who enter the inner no-fly zone, as well as the lesser fine for the wider Air Defense Identification Zone.
The bill would also require the FAA to provide training to pilots flying in restricted areas.
House leaders could take up the bill after the August congressional recess, Hoyer said. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, is pursuing similar legislation, a spokesman said.