U.S. Capitol Police say an ‘extremely unusual’ oversight triggered Capitol evacuation

Patrick Semansky, AP

U.S. Capitol Police ordered the evacuation of the Capitol complex after an unidentified single-engine plane was spotted in a restricted airspace. The plane was part of a planned military flyover of nearby Nationals Park, though the Capitol Police had not been given advance notice of the flight.

U.S. Capitol Police say an “extremely unusual” gap in communications led to the evacuation of the Capitol campus for an air threat on Wednesday evening, part of a chain of events now under review by federal authorities.

The agency evacuated the Capitol around 6:30 p.m. ET Wednesday after an unidentified single-engine plane was spotted in a restricted airspace. The plane was part of a military flyover of nearby Nationals Park for a baseball game that evening. Other federal officials were aware of the planned flyover but not Capitol Police.

The last time the Capitol was evacuated for a potential air threat was June 2014, the agency said.

“Every week the USCP is made aware of hundreds of authorized flights in the restricted airspace. It is extremely unusual not to be made aware of a flight in advance,” Capitol Police said in a statement on Thursday.

The agency said without advance notice of the approved flight, it had to immediately evacuate the Capitol complex. The plane carried members of the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team to be featured at Nationals Park for a military appreciation night.

The evacuation came while Congress was in recess and so much of its members and staffers were away. But it has raised alarm for federal law enforcement officials and Congress.

Soon after the incident, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lauded the Capitol Police’s bravery, while also slamming the Federal Aviation Administration for the apparent lack in communication.

“The Federal Aviation Administration’s apparent failure to notify Capitol Police of the pre-planned flyover Nationals Stadium is outrageous and inexcusable,” Pelosi said. “The unnecessary panic caused by this apparent negligence was particularly harmful for Members, staff and institutional workers still grappling with the trauma of the attack on their workplace on January 6th.”

Pelosi said Congress looks forward to the results of an after-action review to determine what went wrong and “who at the Federal Aviation Administration will be held accountable for this outrageous and frightening mistake.”

The FAA said it is looking into the matter.

“The FAA takes its role in protecting the national airspace seriously and will conduct a thorough and expeditious review of the events yesterday and share updates,” the agency said in a statement late Wednesday. “We know our actions affect others, especially in our nation’s capital region, and we must communicate early and often with our law enforcement partners.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.