Capitol Police’s decision last month to evacuate the Capitol complex due to a false airplane threat occurred as officials were telling officers the plane posed no danger, according to an internal FAA timeline of events obtained by POLITICO.
The House and Senate were out of town on April 20, the day of the evacuation, though the incident caused alarm among staff at the Capitol campus, especially in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack. The plane was actually an U.S. Army parachute plane taking part in a Nationals baseball game demonstration.
The situation raised questions about interagency communication with the Capitol Police and the department’s evacuation procedures. Since then, the FAA has admitted fault for its failure to provide advance notification of the flight to the Capitol Police, and top lawmakers have vowed accountability for the incident.
At 6:26 p.m. on April 20, officers at the Capitol reported seeing a “Cessna” airplane flying in the vicinity of the Capitol, according to the FAA’s timeline of events. About a minute later, the officer on watch at the Capitol called the Capitol Police’s officer at the National Capital Region Coordination Center, the interagency group monitoring D.C.’s airspace, and asked if they knew anything about a Cessna flying through the area.
The officer at the center told the officer on watch that the only aircraft the center saw was the authorized Golden Knights flight, which was not in the prohibited airspace around the Capitol, according to the timeline.
By 6:29 p.m. the Federal Aviation Administration official at the coordination center, located in Herndon, Va. verified the Golden Knights flight was a solo flight and told the USCP officer at the center that the flight was a single aircraft on an authorized flight, the FAA timeline said.
The USCP officer at the coordination center then called the department’s commander at the Capitol to tell them about the solo Golden Knights flight. Then, 42 seconds into the conversation, the coordination center officer was informed the Capitol Police had begun an evacuation of the Capitol, according to the timeline.
The Capitol Police’s commander at the Capitol told their officer at the center to “figure it out” because the Capitol complex had been evacuated, the FAA timeline said, in an apparent flash of frustration.
Before the evacuation was confirmed, the center’s Air Traffic Security Coordinator observed media reports that the Capitol was being evacuated, requesting more information from the Watch Officer. When the officer replied that Capitol Police did not send out an alert to evacuate, the center believed the media reports were false and no evacuation was underway.
Reuters first reported the timeline. The FAA referred POLITICO to its previous statements on the matter, reiterating the agency is conducting a further review into the communication breakdown with partner and other law enforcement agencies.
“The United States Capitol Police must make split-second decisions that could make the difference between life and death,” the department said in a April 21 statement.