Four planes violate secure airspace
FITCHBURG, Mass. — Four small private planes, including one that had to be intercepted by a military jet and forced to land, violated secure airspace around President Bush's flight to Manchester, N.H., Wednesday at various times in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, military and federal aviation officials said.
"It was a busy day," said an official with the Secret Service, who spoke on background and added that all the incidents appear to have been inadvertent.
The first and most serious occurred at about 11 a.m. when a 1979 Beechcraft Skipper plane was escorted by a fighter jet to Fitchburg Municipal Airport, where the pilot and an unidentified male passenger were met by police officers and later interviewed by members of the Secret Service before being allowed to depart in their airplane.
Officials said the F-15 fighter jet was diverted from escorting Air Force One around 11 a.m. and intercepted the Beechcraft near the airport. The jet then escorted the plane out of the secure zone after air traffic controllers were unable to make contact with the pilot by radio.
Federal Aviation Administration records show the plane is registered to Scott D. Morton, 42, of Grafton.
Reporters were kept out of the terminal Wednesday as the two men in the Beechcraft were questioned. Both were later allowed to take off about 2:30 p.m. - some 1-1/2 hours after Bush departed. Morton could not be reached for comment.
Three incidents took place later in the president's flight, federal security officials said. One plane violated airspace around Swanzey, N.H., a second was in the restricted airspace around Pease Air National Guard Base near Portsmouth, N.H., and a third was warned to turn around over Lebanon, N.H.
"There were a number of airspace violations during the president's visit," said Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the Secret Service. ''It's a lot more than we tend to see."
However, officials at the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., which monitored the situation, said four incidents is small compared with the number of violations before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We used to get so many more," said Major Darren Steele, a NORAD spokesman. "Now it's much better and people are much more aware than they used to be."
He said four incidents, three of them minor, in a presidential trip is not unusual.
The president's flight was not diverted because of the incidents.
Two F-15 jets from Otis Air National Guard Base were accompanying the president's flight and did not have to fire flares to get the pilot's attention in the first incident, Steele said.
Kathleen Vasconcelos, spokeswoman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a general aviation lobbying group, said she could not say whether Wednesday's incidents was a high number because neither her organization nor any federal agency tracks violations of temporary flight restrictions.
"Every pilot is responsible for getting as much details as possible and 1/8to3/8 know about all airspace restrictions before they take off," she said.
The lobbying group said it has seen penalties for violating restricted airspace range from warnings to 30- to 60-day suspensions of a pilot's flight certificate.
"Most are inadvertent acts and are not a terrorist threat," Vasconcelos said.
There were 7,729 active general aviation aircraft in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont in 2004, the latest figures from the FAA.
Nationwide, the number of hours flown by general aviation aircraft is expected to rise - from 27.3 million in 2004 to 29.2 million for 2008, an increase that troubles federal aviation safety officials.
A temporary flight restriction allows only approved or emergency flights to operate in the designated area.
The Manchester flight restriction was in place from 10:35 a.m. to 1:05 p.m. Wednesday across a 30-nautical mile zone around Manchester's airport. The area includes a large swath north of Boston and stretched as far west as Keene, N.H. The flight restriction, common for any presidential visit, was issued Monday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Globe staff writer John R. Ellement contributed to this report. Mac Daniel can be reached at mdanielglobe.com.
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