NORFOLK — A high-ranking Navy Reserve officer was cleared of two federal misdemeanor charges but found guilty of a third after making a last-minute decision to land his private plane at Norfolk Naval Station amid bad weather.
Capt. Daniel C. Cross, 52, was flying his single-engine plane May 16 from Georgia to Norfolk. He planned to land at Norfolk International Airport – he’d filed a flight plan saying as much and had arranged to store his plane there – but changed course at the last minute because of a severe rain storm that flooded parts of Hampton Roads that day.
Prosecutor Nicholas Linstroth argued that Cross decided to divert to Norfolk Naval Station’s airfield despite having other options and no permission to land there. Linstroth called it “a decision that didn’t need to be made” that was based on “personal convenience.” Cross didn’t want to miss a presentation that he was scheduled to give on the base, Linstroth said, so he led air traffic controllers to believe that he was authorized to land there, inappropriately mentioning his high rank for good measure.
But defense attorney Patrick O’Donnell painted a different picture, saying there was a misunderstanding. Cross was frantic after an air traffic controller at Norfolk International suggested it wasn’t safe to land there because of the weather, O’Donnell argued. Cross didn’t purposely mislead controllers at the base, O’Donnell said, and he only made the landing after he was told he could.
The Navy air traffic controller who handled Cross’s plane, Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory Sawyer, testified for the prosecution. He said he only told Cross he was “cleared” to land because Cross indicated over the radio that he had the required authorization. Sawyer said Cross’s plane wasn’t on the tower’s list of authorized aircraft, but he “thought it was a mistake on our end,” especially after Cross mentioned his rank.
Sawyer testified that when he told Cross he was cleared to land, he meant only that the runway he was approaching was unobstructed. Obtaining authorization to land – something that can only be granted by a base’s commanding officer – is another matter; it is a multistep process that involves filing paperwork well in advance, including proof of insurance, a hold-harmless agreement and a flight plan.
Even with the right documents, witnesses testified, pilots flying private planes often aren't granted permission to use a military airfield as their back-up landing place.
Cross, who testified during his day-long trial Wednesday, acknowledged that he failed to include an alternate airport in his flight plan in case there was bad weather at Norfolk International.
Witnesses testified that Cross gave the base’s tower little notice that he was planning to land there, and they could not quickly verify whether he had authorization. Sawyer said he worried that turning Cross away when he was so close could have put him in danger.
Security personnel met Cross’s plane on the ground. That’s when base officials confirmed that Cross didn’t have authorization, Linstroth said. Linstroth said the only permission Cross had – the permission that Cross apparently was referring to when he spoke to the tower – was granted by the Air Force to land at an installation in New Jersey. Cross was handcuffed and detained for several hours before he was allowed to take off from the base.
Cross, who lives in Washington, D.C., was in Georgia because he was working there on temporary active duty for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. He was coming here to give a presentation at Norfolk Naval Station in his Navy Reserve capacity as the mid-Atlantic regional commander for the Information Dominance Corps. He was commissioned into the Reserves in 1986.
Cross acknowledged that part of the reason he chose to land at the base rather than divert to a civilian airport was because he was hoping not to miss the presentation. He testified that because he was on Navy business and had been “vetted” by the Air Force to use another military airfield, he thought it would be OK to land at Norfolk Naval Station given the weather.
“My motivation was based on safety,” he said after the verdict.
Cross was cleared of trespassing and entering U.S. property under false pretenses. He was found guilty of violating defense property security regulations. His punishment is a $1,500 fine.