WASHINGTON — A passenger plane briefly lost radio contact with air traffic controllers when the pilot turned to the wrong frequency as he approached Washington, leading to the scrambling of fighter jets and the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol, federal officials said Saturday.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Jim Peters said the agency is reviewing the “pilot readback error.” The loss of radio contact as the plane approached the nation’s capital also led officials to evacuate all House and Senate office buildings.
Piedmont Airlines flight 4352 from Hilton Head, S.C., was on course for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport when it lost radio contact with air traffic controllers at a regional radar facility in Virginia for about 15 minutes, FAA officials said. The facility is responsible for handling the plane almost until the landing, when Reagan National takes over.
F-16 fighter jets were scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base, but the airliner was able to re-establish radio contact and it landed at Reagan National, said Stacey Knott, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command. It was unclear how contact was re-established. The FAA and U.S. Secret Service interviewed the pilot when the plane was on the ground.
The evacuation order was issued around 1:30 p.m. and was called off about a half-hour later when the plane landed. Few people were at the Capitol complex on Saturday as Congress is out of session, and the Capitol Visitors Center was closed because of the New Year’s holiday. The Secret Service moved to a higher security condition during the incident, but did not evacuate the White House, according to agency spokesman Max Milien.
Salisbury, Md.-based Piedmont is a wholly owned subsidiary of US Airways. US Airways spokeswoman Tina Swail said the airline was working with local authorities to investigate the incident.
The number of passengers on board wasn’t immediately known. The company’s website says it operates 44 de Havilland DHC-8 turboprop aircraft, which can carry up to 50 passengers.