Investigation Underway After Citation Encore Intercepted in Washington

Fighter jets scrambled over D.C. before the private airplane went down in northern Virginia on June 4.

The presence of the unauthorized aircraft triggered North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to scramble F-16s out of Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. [Courtesy: US Air Force]

Authorities are trying to determine what caused the pilot of a Cessna 560 Citation V Encore to become unresponsive and overfly the nation's capital Sunday afternoon, triggering an intercept by military fighter jets. 

The presence of the unauthorized aircraft triggered North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to scramble six fighter jets in pairs, from air bases in Maryland, New Jersey and South Carolina, a command spokesperson at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida told FLYING. The two F-16s that deployed from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland reached the Cessna first, resulting in a sonic boom as the military jet closed on the wayward civilian jet.

The Citation subsequently entered a steep spiraling descent over rural Virginia and crashed, killing all aboard.

According to the FAA, the civilian airplane took off from Elizabethton Municipal Airport (0A9) in Tennessee on Sunday and was headed for Long Island’s MacArthur Airport (KISP). The aircraft turned toward the northeast then veered toward Virginia. 

The FAA noted the uncommunicative jet "flew directly over the nation's capital, though it was technically flying above some of the most heavily restricted airspace in the nation." 

Flight tracking sites showed the jet diving rapidly, at one point at a rate of more than 30,000 feet per minute, before making impact in mountainous terrain near Montebello, Virginia, around 3:30 p.m. EST.

According to the Associated Press, Virginia State Police were dispatched to the scene but found no survivors.

The Intercept

According to a statement from NORAD, "the F-16s were authorized to travel at supersonic speeds and a sonic boom may have been heard by residents of the region. During this event, the NORAD aircraft also used flares—which may have been visible to the public—in an attempt to draw attention from the pilot. Flares are employed with highest regard for safety of the intercepted aircraft and people on the ground. Flares burn out quickly and completely and there is no danger to the people on the ground when dispensed."

NORAD noted the F-16s intercepted the civilian aircraft at approximately 3:20 p.m. EST and made repeated attempts to establish contact with the Citation pilot with no success. Flight tracking sites show the Citation descending at 20,000 feet to 30,000 feet a minute in a steep, spiraling descent before impact.

The Accident

At approximately 3:30 p.m.,Virginia State Police were notified of a possible aircraft accident and were dispatched to the area. Upon reaching the site in a rural part of the Shenandoah Valley, they found the wreckage and reported there were no survivors.

The Citation was registered to Encore Motors of Melbourne Inc., based in Florida. The company is owned by John and Barbara Rumpel. John Rumpel, who is also a pilot, told The New York Times that his daughter, 2-year-old granddaughter, her nanny, and the pilot were aboard the jet, flying home to Long Island after visiting his home in North Carolina.

Airspace Violations, Military Intercept

“Violation of airspace and military intercept does not mean the aircraft will be shot down,” said Heather Penney, senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. 

Penney is a 4,000-hour airline transport pilot (ATP) who was an F-16 pilot scrambled on 9/11.

When an aircraft enters or appears to be heading toward restricted or prohibited airspace, there is a protocol to follow. The first step is attempting radio communication followed by identifying the threat level, which is usually initiated by intercepting the aircraft.

Penney notes that most general aviation aircraft fly too low and too slow to allow them to be intercepted by fighter jets.

"This is why the air defense system is multilayered," said Penney, explaining that depending on the situation, aircraft interception may be performed by a sheriff's department, the U.S. Coast Guard or, as in this case, fighters from NORAD. 

She said the interceptors must evaluate the situation to determine if the wayward aircraft has hostile intent. On Sunday, this began with the interceptors expediting reaching the non-communicative aircraft, so supersonic airspeed was authorized, resulting in a widely heard sonic boom.

"The Citation was up at 34,000 feet and heading toward the D.C. area. Air defense needed to get to them before they got to D.C. to go through attempts to get them up on the radio," Penney said. "They need to determine if they are NORDO (no radio) and determine the condition of pilots if possible. This means a close formation to see the condition of the pilots and a battle damage check of the aircraft to see if there is something wrong that could explain the situation."

In this case radio contact could not be established, and when that happens, the interceptors provide an escort for the stricken aircraft in part to keep away other air traffic from it and keep eyes on the aircraft being escorted until the threat terminates.

Shooting down an aircraft is unlikely, she said, noting the wreckage from such an event would likely spread over a wide area and could inflict significant damage to people or structures on the ground, posing too much of a hazard to justify the action.

"When an aircraft drifts into restricted airspace, it's often a case of innocence or ignorance, even in the highly regulated D.C. area," Penney said. “In these cases the erring pilot can expect further education or perhaps certificate action. Just because you violate airspace doesn't mean you will be shot down. You will be held accountable by other means."

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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