Supersonic Fighters Chase Bizjet Over Washington

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A Cessna Citation with four people onboard crashed in the mountains of Virginia after it overflew Washington, D.C., restricted airspace on Sunday and its pilot did not respond to numerous attempts at contact. The incident prompted the scrambling of fighters that went supersonic and caused a sonic boom that rattled windows and nerves in the capital. A U.S. official told CNN that the fighters didn’t cause the plane to crash. The fate of the four people wasn’t immediately released.

The drama unfolded when the Citation, which took off from Elizabethton, Tennessee, for Long Island, made a U-turn over New York and flew directly over Washington at 34,000 feet about 3:20 p.m., prompting an emergency response even though the ceiling of the restricted airspace is 18,000 feet. “The NORAD aircraft were authorized to travel at supersonic speeds and a sonic boom may have been heard by residents of the region,” a NORAD statement said. The fighters intercepted the plane and used flares to get the Citation pilot’s attention but did not get any response from the aircraft. The business jet crashed in the George Washington National Forest in southwest Virginia. It was registered to a car dealership in Melbourne, Florida.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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27 COMMENTS

  1. According to the FlightAware readout the plane was still at FL340 when passing over DC. The SFRA tops out at FL180 so there was no violation of the SFRA airspace. The so called U turn over Long Island was a turn probably programmed into the plane’s FMS according to the clearance. The last fix prior to Islip is Calverton VOR which is the normal routing in the New York area coming from the southwest. The FMS and autopilot then just held that heading after the turn toward ISP until plane ran out of fuel. I used to fly that model of Citation, it looks like the flight planned was a max range flight. Sure looks like a loss of pressurization, pilot incapacitation accident, but of course we will have to wait for the cockpit voice recorder readings by the NTSB to know for sure. RIP to those onboard.

    • “The so called U turn over Long Island was a turn probably programmed into the plane’s FMS according to the clearance. The last fix prior to Islip is Calverton VOR which is the normal routing in the New York area coming from the southwest. The FMS and autopilot then just held that heading after the turn toward ISP until plane ran out of fuel.”

      This makes sense except for two things. The first is it appears to make a beeline back to 0A9 after the big turn: could the pilot have programmed 0A9 as the last waypoint, possibly to see if he had the fuel to return while on his way to Islip, intending to remove it from the plan once he had a good idea?

      The second point is if the airplane was indeed holding heading after the turn, wouldn’t there be some small changes of course in the final leg, subject to changes in winds aloft speeds and directions? Again, it appears to be a solidly held course until flameout.

      • After looking at the OpenADSB Exchange and running 0A9-SARDI-CCC-KISP-0A9 I changed my mind: KISP-0A9 while indeed very close to the airplane’s final track they aren’t the same. CCC-KISP is only two degrees difference than KISP-0A9, and the airplane’s track didn’t change after crossing KISP and an extension of the projected track would have passed south of 0A9.

        So, the airplane doesn’t appear to be holding a heading on the final leg but simply an extension of the CCC-KISP course.

  2. When I first heard of this story I thought “wow, that sound serious” but as I read more I begin to wonder how much hype (and energy) was put into only one aspect of this accident. A couple articles I read never published the altitude, didn’t say when radio communications were lost, just that a fight plane flew super sonic over DC.

    Okay, still concerning, but why was the fighter flying super sonic, must have been a quick entry right? But then I read the plane flew from TN to NY (Original flight was to land near NY) took a u-turn, flew back towards DC at 34,000 and never entered restricted space. My questions would be,

    when did ATC lose radio communications? An FMS u-turn over a major ATC area without communication I think would be noticed.
    Flight time between NY and DC would had to have been at least an hour so if ATC was lost around NY, why was a fighter not sent up from Ft Dix or from DC NE to intercept without needed to go super sonic?

    It is great the military responds, but if this jet was that close, were they monitoring the plane and prepared to do “something” if it was going to glide towards populated areas?

    The story was made to be about a jet going super sonic over DC for a non-violation of restricted airspace yet the larger story, and more poignant story is how did a plane flew from NY at that height and for that long with out quicker response. If that plane stalled along that heading it could have crashed into the greater Philly, Wilmington, Baltimore, DC area.

  3. Rocketing a civilian airplane is just not in the American Military’s DNA. Military pilots & the FAA have worried for years about what—exactly—to do in such situations over populated areas. There is no good answer, other than the imperative to keep the intruder from augering into government facilities. But the US military intentionally raining flaming wreckage onto a suburban neighborhood is not a good solution either.

    Sophisticated autopilots make nudging a plane off course, the way Nazi V-1 buzz bombs were redirected in WWII, impractical.

    I imagine the scramble was prompted by the no radio status of the Citation & out of an abundance of caution.

    Why is it, when I think back on these–likely–pressurization failures, I only remember Citation? Is there something tricky in their implementation?

  4. So a Citation flies in normal controlled airspace where no restrictions exist, get intercepted by fighter jets (whatever for?) and moments later the aircraft crashes?
    A spy balloon is allowed to meander on its merry way all over military bases and the balloon is burst over the sea where the hardware payload is not easily recoverable?
    Standard weather balloons get shot down by $400,000 Sidewinder missiles over the northern Great Lakes.
    Nothing makes sense with the USAF anymore.

    • It was likely intercepted for flying over populated areas with no radio contact (NORDO) and for flying over major cities like Washington DC in that condition. Or have you forgotten 9/11 already? I’d rather have the aircraft intercepted and followed than accept the risk given the prevalence of terrorism these days.
      Your comment is seriously deficient in logic and knowledge, including your comment about the Chinese surveillance balloon incident. Bringing that down was a threat to people on the ground.
      Or do you have such a poor opinion of our Air Force that you’re questioning their judgement?

    • Landing it on the continental shelf in shallow water was probably more recoverable than falling from 60,000 ft. onto the ground. ISR concerns, ELINT, & SIGINT, coming off of the ballon were more valuable than the hardware anyway. We had a U-2 gathering (& interrupting) signals the entire time it was over instillations, as well as minimizing signals at bases as it passed over.

      It is far more useful to know what the Chinese were interested in obtaining–what they thought our weakness or blind spot might be–by analyzing their output signals from the balloon than recovering the equipment anyway.

      Can’t imagine, in any event, what information the balloon could collect that satellites & an office on the 4th story of a nearby building couldn’t intercept as well.

      The Great Lakes downing was just because of PR pressure to “do something.”

      • “ Can’t imagine, in any event, what information the balloon could collect that satellites & an office on the 4th story of a nearby building couldn’t intercept as well.”

        Agreed. Procedures and policies are in place for satellite overflights so as to lessen the available ELINT/SIGINT. So then, what was the goal? What was the most valuable data collected?

        The data recorded during the live fire F-22 MISSLE-EX was more valuable than anything gathered over the Continental U.S.

        I think we gave “them” exactly what “they” wanted.

        • We owe the CCP a debt of gratitude for showing us a weakness in our defenses we had no idea about. Better yet, it cost us nothing but a bit of embarrassment. I thought it was clever of them to hit where we ain’t lookin: balloons.

          We about know every rocket that launches around the globe. The US alone launches dozens of weather balloons every day, plus amateur & scientific balloons.

          Our tracking systems ignore balloons as not a threat.

          The CCP declared itself a “near arctic” country a while ago (only 7k miles away). Since the ice melted, they’re pretty desperate to get in on the acrid gold rush: ores, rare earth minerals, open new shipping lanes. China is a relatively new space nation. I suspect they might not have good satellite coverage in the arctic yet. The fact that this balloon flew over the continental US might have been a fluke. But once discovered, what are their options? Jettison the load & hope we don’t find it?

    • Exactly. And that King Air B200 that cracked a windshield at FL270. The pilots hadn’t actually tested the O2 as per the checklist (breathe in, feel the hiss/pressure) or even opened the valve, which had frozen shut from condensation. and when they woke up, airplane was in a vertical dive, airspeed was pegged, and by the time they pulled out, they’d bent the airframe and lost one of the elevators.

  5. The intercepting jets should have gotten close to look at the windows. A pressurization loss would have iced the inner cabin windows visibly. End of mystery.

    • Not sure end of mystery. If it was an outflow problem, the incoming air would still warm the cabin and prevent ice on the windows. Only when inflow is interrupted does the cabin cold soak and frost over.

      • Correct; may not have been pressurization at all. But if not, puzzling why the two adult passengers would not have made an attempt to intervene, even if not aviation savvy. Very sad.

        And leave it to the media to overshadow this tragic loss of life with overhyping the F-16’s going supersonic–who cares? I’m just glad they responded as quickly as they did and if warp speed is warranted, use it!

  6. First thing I thought of was Payne Stewart when I heard about this. But that was a Lear.

    I thought I read in some news article that the responding aircraft were able to get a look inside the Cessna and reported that the pilot was incapacitated. I can’t remember where I read it or if that’s even true.

  7. Autoland could work if the pilot had time to pull the handle. If ATC did not receive any mayday call, it probably happened very quickly or so slowly they didn’t realize what was happening. CO poisoning maybe?

  8. Johh, for what its worth, Garmin Autonomy can be manually activated or it senses inactivity and can auto engage.

  9. I rode a Navy pressure chamber up to 30+K or so. At around 20K several persons were told to remove their masks and do some simple task. It was only seconds before they went goofy, grinned a lot, and had zero capability to understand or perform. Within a minute or two, they would have been unconscious. A loss of oxygen is an immediate and soon fatal issue unless it is very quickly recognized. When I was a controller in the USAF, we were instructed that if a fighter type began to act weird (more so than normal), we were to tell them,”go 100% oxygen, go 100% oxygen”.

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