The Sky is Falling
The Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds get all the attention when it comes to military demonstration teams. Still, neither can claim that they once invoked a panic in Washington DC that caused the evacuation of the Capitol building. That distinction belongs (perhaps forever) to the US Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Demonstration Team.
It was 6:30 PM ET in Washington DC, and a lone single-engined unidentified aircraft made its’ way toward the heart of the nation’s capital. Fear bristled in the hearts of some of our nation’s lawmakers. What was the nefarious purpose of this flight?
US Capitol Police immediately ordered the evacuation of the Capitol building and the US Library of Congress. Staffers quickly gathered their belongings and made for the streets, preparing for another 9/11.
The aircraft was operated by the US Army and carried members of the elite Golden Knights Parachute Demonstration Team. They were on their way to a scheduled drop into that night’s baseball game at Nationals Park. They made the drop into the stadium with no issues.
“Communication breakdown, it’s always the same
Havin’ a nervous breakdown, a-drive me insane.” – Led Zeppelin
After the incident was over and the all-clear was given, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lauded the Capitol Police’s bravery while also slamming the Federal Aviation Administration for the apparent lack of communication.
“The Federal Aviation Administration’s apparent failure to notify Capitol Police of the pre-planned flyover Nationals Stadium is outrageous and inexcusable. The unnecessary panic caused by this apparent negligence was particularly harmful for Members, staff and institutional workers still grappling with the trauma of the attack on their workplace on January 6th.”
The incident marks a stunning communications failure among the military, the FAA, and the Capitol Police. For their part, the FAA says it “takes its role in protecting the national airspace seriously and will conduct a thorough and expeditious review of the events this evening and share updates.”
The agency said that it knows its actions affect others, “especially in our nation’s capital region, and we must communicate early and often with our law enforcement partners.”
US Army Recruiting Command, which was in charge of organizing and executing the pregame demonstration, said through their spokeswoman Kelli LeGaspi, “We are reviewing all aspects of the event to ensure all procedures were followed appropriately to coordinate both the flight and the parachute demonstration.”
The aircraft, a De Havilland Twin Otter, took off from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and had been circling inside heavily restricted airspace close to the Capitol when the alert was sent. Radar tracking data shows the aircraft remained clear of the prohibited airspace over the Capitol building and other government complexes. According to the procedure, the plane coordinated its flight with the control tower at nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Investigators were still working to determine why the event wasn’t properly coordinated with law enforcement officials in Washington.
The capital region is defended by several surface-to-air missile sites and military aircrews on round-the-clock alert. However, it did not appear that any of those systems was scrambled.
The pilot may have not correctly reported taking off or had appropriate clearance based on a preliminary review.
A Call for Accountability
Speak Pelosi demands accountability. She said:
“Congress looks forward to reviewing the results of a thorough after-action review that determines what precisely went wrong today and who at the Federal Aviation Administration will be held accountable for this outrageous and frightening mistake.”
The rogue aircraft landed back at Andrews around 6:50 p.m. after the parachutists descended into the middle of the field at Nationals Park, a little more than 1 mile from the US Capitol.
Not Our Fault
The US Army Recruiting Command quickly issued a statement to get clear of the mess, saying,
“After an initial review of the pre-planning and coordination for the U.S. Army Golden Knights flight and parachute demonstration, we have confirmed that the parachute team filed all appropriate and required Federal Aviation Administration documentation and received FAA approval prior to operating within the National Capitol Region’s airspace,” said Kelli LeGaspi, director of public affairs for U.S. Army Recruiting Command. “The team also confirmed the pilots established and maintained communication with the FAA prior to and throughout the operation.”
That leaves the FAA and the Capitol Police in the mud pit to fight it out over the unforced error that resulted in the panicked evacuation.
Buildings on the Capitol complex were reopened a little after 8 p.m.
The Washington Nationals lost the game to the Arizona Diamondbacks 11-2.