On Sunday, two US fighter jets intercepted a plane with a non-responsive pilot flying over the Washington, DC, area, causing a sonic boom that startled residents in the city, and leaving four people dead.
The plane — a Cessna Citation, which can hold up to 12 people — left from Elizabethton, Tennessee, and was originally destined for Long Island, New York. Shortly after the aircraft reached the Long Island area, the plane turned and flew down toward DC. Two F-16 fighter jets, which were flying at supersonic speeds, were dispatched from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to intercept the plane because it flew into restricted airspace, according to a spokesperson for NORAD. Four other F-16s, two from a South Carolina base and two from a New Jersey airfield, were also sent to intercept the plane.
The area over Washington, DC, requires special clearance to enter and is part of a broader restricted section, meant to safeguard infrastructure and government personnel from foreign and terrorist attacks. Planes that enter that airspace without approval and proper communication with authorities can prompt the response that took place on Sunday. The fighter jets’ speed contributed to the sonic boom, which some residents experienced as a loud sudden noise on Sunday afternoon.
The fighter jets ultimately intercepted the plane around 3:20 pm Sunday, and shot flares in order to try to get the pilot’s attention. Throughout this process, the pilot was unresponsive, and it’s not yet clear why this was. Investigators are reportedly looking into whether the pilot was suffering from the effects of hypoxia — a condition when someone loses consciousness in a plane due to lack of oxygen.
The plane wound up crashing in a mountainous area near Montebello, Virginia, at 3:30 pm. National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson Adam Gerhardt said Monday morning that the plane had been “highly fragmented” in the crash, but that investigators hoped to find instruments that would reveal more about the incident.
Authorities were unable to find survivors after searching the region. The plane was registered with Florida-based Encore Motors of Melbourne. The man who runs the company, John Rumpel, told the New York Times his daughter Adina Azarian, her 2-year-old daughter Aria, and Aria’s nanny were onboard the plane, along with the pilot. Azarian was a real estate broker in the New York City area, who reportedly often traveled to visit family in North Carolina and New Hampshire.
According to the New York Times, officials have determined that the plane was not a threat. At the moment, this appears to be an isolated incident and not part of any broader threat or failure by any particular aviation agency.
NORAD Responds to an Unresponsive Aircraft over the National Capital Region pic.twitter.com/EX7r1B1Uum— 1st AF/America's AOC (@1stAF) June 4, 2023
Per a NORAD spokesperson, it’s standard protocol to send fighter jets to intercept a plane if it flies into restricted airspace and is not responsive. The Federal Aviation Administration attempted to contact the pilot of the Cessna prior to deploying the fighter jets, but did not receive a response. The F-16 pilots received no response either.
The FAA is conducting an investigation into the incident along with the National Transportation Safety Board.
A Cessna Citation crashed into mountainous terrain near Montebello, VA around 3:30 PM ET on June 4. The aircraft took off from Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Elizabethton, TN and was bound for @LIMacArthur in New York. The FAA and @NTSB will investigate.— The FAA ✈️ (@FAANews) June 4, 2023
Incidents involving unresponsive pilots are relatively rare
It remains unclear why the pilot was unresponsive in Sunday’s incident and officials are continuing to investigate.
Past cases involving unresponsive pilots could provide some insight into what happened. In 2014, fighter jets were deployed to respond to an unresponsive small plane that drifted over the southern US to the Caribbean. In that instance, the pilots of the fighter jets saw the pilot slumped over, and NORAD suspected he may have experienced hypoxia. That same year, another plane also flew over DC after the pilot lost consciousness and fighter jets were deployed as well. And in 1999, fighter jets intercepted a plane carrying pro golfer Payne Stewart after air traffic controllers lost contact and it ultimately crashed in South Dakota.
Such cases are relatively uncommon, the Associated Press reported in 2014, “with probably not much more than a handful of such incidents over the last decade.”
“Sometimes the incidents are due to a pilot becoming incapacitated by a heart attack or stroke, but more often the problem is insufficient cabin pressurization that causes the pilot and any passengers to pass out,” the AP reported.
According to a NORAD spokesperson, there are an array of reasons that fighter jets would be deployed to intercept a plane — including in unrestricted airspace — though the full criteria are classified. In the case of the plane on Sunday, there were potential concerns about airspace, but NORAD can also, for example, be asked by the FAA to send fighter jets if a plane appears to be off its flight path and hasn’t been in proper communication.
Update June 6, 2023, 11:35 am ET: This story was originally published on June 5 and has been updated with new details on the victims and investigation.