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Radar Detected Airplane before White House Crash

By Ruben Castaneda and Pierre Thomas
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The plane that slammed against the White House early Monday morning had been detected by radar at National Airport minutes before the crash, according to federal investigators who are trying to determine why Secret Service officers guarding the mansion weren't warned of the aircraft's approach.

Frank Eugene Corder, 38, a student pilot with a history of alcohol and drug abuse, stole the single-engine Cessna from an airfield north of Baltimore and died in the crash, officials said. Initial interviews with associates of Corder suggest the crash was intentional, federal officials said, but they said they did not believe it was politically motivated.

FBI and Secret Service investigators plan to pore over Federal Aviation Administration records to determine what the FAA's radar showed, whether it seemed to indicate a potential threat, and what was done with the information, federal sources said.

As it turned out, a patch of lawn, a holly hedge and an old magnolia tree were all that slowed down the airplane as it hurtled toward the home of the president.

Startled uniformed Secret Service officers at the White House saw the descending plane at 1:49 a.m. and ducked for cover. The plane crashed onto the South Lawn of the White House, skidded, slammed through the hedge and clipped the tree before it hit a wall on the west side of the mansion.

Corder had stolen the plane from an airfield north of Baltimore, investigators said. Federal officials conceded that Corder's flight exposed a seam in the government's muscular, electronically sophisticated zone of presidential defense.

Heavily armed guards protect the president and his home. Buildings are searched and snipers are perched for presidential motorcades. And flying over or near the White House, the Mall, the monuments and the Capitol is prohibited by federal law. But if someone chooses not to obey the rules, they can zoom into the forbidden zone without resistance, federal officials and aviators said.

"The scenario for a crackpot pilot being able to do that is within reason," said Leo Janssens, president of the Ohio-based Aviation Safety Institute. "It's almost impossible to keep planes out of that area because it's so close to National Airport."

The astonishing crash raised questions about the basic security of the home and office of the president.

Only after repeated questions did Carl Meyer, a Secret Service special agent, acknowledge that Secret Service officers had not fired on the plane to prevent it from reaching the White House. Asked how much notice the officers had of the plane, Meyer responded, "I think enough time to run for cover."

President Clinton and his family are staying at Blair House, just north of the mansion, while the White House is being renovated. They were not harmed or awakened by the crash.

"Any effort like this has to be treated as an assumed assassination attempt," said Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz. Numerous questions need to be answered, said the senator, who sits on a subcommittee that oversees the Secret Service.

It was unclear Monday whether the Secret Service has a specific plan to deal with an airborne attack. Secret Service officials declined to answer questions on the matter.

Corder, of Perry Point, Md., was killed on impact, officials said. Corder, a high school dropout from Aberdeen, was an Army veteran who until recently had owned a trucking company. Until recent weeks, he had lived with his wife on the grounds of the Veterans Hospital in Perry Point, in Harford County. About two weeks ago, Corder separated from his wife. Since then he had been living out of his car, a federal official involved in the investigation said.

Much about Corder and his flight could not be determined Monday.

Federal investigators and officials at the Harford County Airpark, from where Corder stole the plane, gave this account of the events leading to the crash:

About 7 p.m. Sunday, the single-engine, two-seat Cessna airplane was returned to the airfield by a student pilot who had flown it for training.

Airfield manager Joseph V. Kessler said the plane was still at the field when he left at 8:30 p.m.

At 1:49 a.m., Secret Service agents and witnesses saw the plane descend toward the White House.

Eyewitnesses said the plane flew near the Washington Monument, then banked left and turned toward the White House.

Arthur Jones, a White House spokesman, said the plane initially hit the grass lawn about 75 feet from a holly hedge and a magnolia tree that was planted during Andrew Jackson's presidency, from 1829 to 1837. The plane skidded into the hedge, and its left wing was clipped by the magnolia tree, Jones said.

The plane traveled another 30 feet before crashing into the West Wing of the White House, Jones said. A mangled heap stopped against the wall to the office of the White House physician, Jones said.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rich Fitzpatrick, who carries "the football," a suitcase containing codes to launch nuclear weapons, was sleeping in the basement of the White House. Awakened by the crash, he called the head of the White House military office, who called White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.