WASHINGTON – On most sunny days, the beautiful Pentagon courtyard is teeming with coworkers eating lunch at the picnic tables, sneaking smoke breaks or escaping from the freezing air conditioning on a nice park bench. People inevitably tilt their faces toward the warm sun and pause for it to bake in.
Then nearly everyone flinches as a commercial airplane roars overhead, unbelievably close to the river side of the building, directly above the offices of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.
Why are airplanes still allowed to buzz the Pentagon?
The runways for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport sit just a few miles down the Potomac River from the Pentagon. So when the winds are right, many fliers have enjoyed landing via a twisting approach that funnels planes between the Lincoln Memorial and the Pentagon.
But some smaller planes, regional airliners or private jets, often take an approach that brings many of them directly over the outer rings of the Pentagon, along the wedge facing the river, which houses much of the Defense Department leadership.
“They don’t actually fly over the Pentagon, they fly close,” said Paul Takemoto, spokesman for the FAA.
Oh yes, they do. From inside the courtyard, they are so low they seem to disappear before they pass the building. From outside of the building, walking to the River Entrance, aircraft landing gear looks to skim the rooftops.
Takemoto did not have an answer, other than to say prevailing winds might play a part in that. But he assured us that if anyone has terrorism worries, they shouldn’t. Washington is just about the most restricted air space in the country, and DCA has “the most restrictive flight rules of any airport in the country.”
Before 9/11, tourist helicopters used to fly directly over the Pentagon, hover in front of the Lincoln Memorial and zoom along the National Mall.
Now, commercial airline operators must have a TSA-approved security program in place. Private aircraft also must follow a mountain of rules and approvals. Approaches and departures to National are all along the river, instead of over densely populated Washington area neighborhoods. Fighters that intercept aircraft over Washington’s restricted air spaces are controlled from upstate New York’s Eastern Air Defense Sector, or EADS.
Besides, the military has a plan for intercepting and, yes, shooting down any threats from inbound aircraft of any kind.
According to the FAA’s 2010 notice and rules for entering the “National Defense Airspace” around Washington, you cannot fly a drone, glider, ultra light, hang glider, balloon, model rockets or aircraft, or float planes. You also cannot do any crop dusting, test flying or parachuting.