On September 11 1994, Frank Corder got behind the controls of a stolen red and white, single engine plane. Shortly after 2am on September 12th, he violated the highly restricted Washington DC airspace and aimed the small plane towards The Whitehouse. Or did he?
By William Neikirk and Christopher Drew
WASHINGTON _ When Frank Corder crashed his plane on the lawn just beneath President Clinton’s bedroom window Monday, he shattered the myth of an impregnable White House and showed how easily someone, perhaps a determined terrorist, could strike again. Though the White House does not discuss security measures, the presidential mansion was thought to be well protected against attacks by hostile aircraft, especially since an unauthorized helicopter landing in 1974. There have been reports that agents could deploy shoulder-held missiles or take out an approaching plane with heavy gunfire.
But the flight by Corder, a 38-year-old truck driver with a drinking problem and several brushes with the law, demonstrated that a pilot flying low under Federal Aviation Administration radar could breach the system.
And Secret Service agents had no time to determine whether the plane was innocently astray, whether the pilot had a heart attack, or whether it was a diversion.
“We didn’t have a good sense of what was involved here,” said Carl Meyer of the Secret Service.
The incident triggered an immediate investigation into how such a thing could happen and what steps should be taken to strengthen the White House security system.
Terrorism experts said the White House’s vulnerability to attack by air, using readily available technology, is greater than believed.
Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of counter-terrorist operations at the CIA, said terrorists could launch a strike with unmanned planes or missiles. “You could go to Radio Shack and youcan buy enough components … to construct a remotely piloted drone, and you could do things with it,” he said.
Chuck de Caro, president of Aerobureau Corp., a Virginia firm that works with unmanned aircraft, agreed that someone could launch an explosive-laden drone from a hotel rooftop a couple of miles from the White House and guide it by radar.
Because of remodeling, President Clinton and his family were sleeping across Pennsylvania Avenue at Blair House when Corder flew the southbound Cessna 150 low over downtown Washington’s silent streets just before 2 a.m., then made a U-turn near the Washington Monument to line up his plane with the White House and soar at treetop level over the mansion’s fence, startling Secret Service agents posted throughout the grounds.
Corder, who lived in Aberdeen, Md., died when the stolen plane smashed on the lawn 50 feet away from the White House, plowed through a magnolia tree and came to rest against a wall two stories below the president’s sleeping quarters. There was little damage to the mansion.
Corder’s ability to evade security recalled such recent terrorist incidents as the bombing of the World Trade Center a year and a half ago, adding a sense of urgency to the probe, which officials said would be completed within 90 days.
The World Trade Center bombing fueled fears that terrorists, financed by such hostile governments as Libya, Iraq or Iran, could try to strike U.S. leaders.
The concrete barriers that ring the White House grounds give it an illusion of invulnerability, Cannistraro said. If someone is willing to die in an attack, he said, it would be hard to prevent.
“The White House is smack dab in the middle of an urban area,” he said, “and it’s pretty vulnerable.”
It was not clear whether Corder intended to harm the president _ the Secret Service said no bombs or weapons were discovered in the wreckage _ or merely wanted to draw attention to himself with a spectacular stunt. His brother said Corder had spoken with admiration and excitement a year ago of a similar flight by a young West German, Mathias Rust, to Red Square in May 1987.
Rust piloted his small plane undetected into the former Soviet Union and landed on perhaps the most public place in the capital to the astonishment and embarrassment of Soviet officials. He served 14 months in a Soviet prison.
White House press secretary Dee Dee Meyers said that, despite Monday’s incident, Clinton “has great confidence in the Secret Service, in the job they do, in their professionalism and their thoroughness.”
Clinton mentioned the crash in a satellite address to national-service program recruits.
“We take this incident seriously, because the White House is the people’s house and it’s the job of every president who lives here to keep it safe and secure,” Clinton said.
Corder stole the red-and-white, two-seat, single-engine plane Sunday night from a small airfield in Harford County, Md. north of Baltimore, where he had taken flying lessons earlier. He flew into the nation’s capital from the north, over 17th Street just to the west of the White House.
Meyer said he could not say whether the plane’s transponder, an electronic device indicating its position, was turned off.
One witness, Adolphus Roberts, said Corder appeared to have cut his engine to glide into the grounds at tree-top level. The only lights on the plane were two flashing on each wing, he told reporters.
“It just kept coming down and falling. Then it disappeared between two trees. I heard a large boom sound. There was no fire, no nothing.”
When the plane crashed, “it tumbled and came to rest against the building, no flame, no fireball,” said White House spokesman Arthur Jones.
Transportation Secretary Federico Pena inspected the crash site and told reporters he could not explain what had happened. “This airspace is restricted and is under constant surveillance,” he said.
The White House and Secret Service were reluctant to disclose details of the incident. Meyer said it is too soon to conclude that the incident resulted from a lapse in security. He confirmed that no shots were fired at the airplane.
Pressed on whether it would be easy for someone else to fly onto the White House grounds, Meyer and Ron Noble, assistant secretary for enforcement for the Treasury Department, declined to answer.
Noble will be in charge of investigating procedures for protecting the First Family in such incidents, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bensten said.
Asked if security is any different when Clinton is not in the White House, Meyer said it would be a “safe assumption” that this is true. “Our resources, our efforts, our manpower, agent power, police offices, would have been geared towards where the president was at the time,” he said.
With Clinton and his family living at Blair House while construction crews remove asbestos from the White House, security along Pennsylvania Avenue has been extremely tight. The street at that point is closed off to traffic.
In the 1974 incident involving an unauthorized aircraft, a military helicopter landed within 100 yards of the White House after making two passes overhead. Guards opened fire and wounded the pilot, an Army helicopter maintenance worker who had taken the chopper without permission. He was held for psychiatric examination.