WASHINGTON — The United States Capitol was briefly evacuated Wednesday night after police identified a plane they said posed “a likely threat” — but the plane was actually carrying members of the Army’s Golden Knights American, who then parachuted into Nationals Park for a pre-game demonstration.
The United States Capitol Police alert sent congressional staffers fleeing the Capitol and the Legislative Building around 6:30 p.m.
The incident suggested a stunning communication failure between the military and Capitol police, all the more remarkable given Washington’s focus on improving security since the January 6, 2021 attack on the building by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blamed the Federal Aviation Administration in a statement late Wednesday, saying its “apparent failure to notify Capitol Police of the pre-planned flyover of Nationals Stadium is outrageous and inexcusable.” The FAA did not respond to a request for comment.
Many who work on Capitol Hill have remained nervous more than a year after hundreds of pro-Trump rioters fought their way past overwhelmed police, burst through windows and doors and ransacked the Capitol as the Congress was voting to certify Joe Biden’s election victory.
In Wednesday’s incident, the plane, a twin-engine aircraft, took off from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and was circling in heavily restricted airspace near the Capitol when the alert was sent. Radar tracking data shows the plane, a De Havilland Twin Otter, stayed clear of restricted airspace over the Capitol and other government compounds at all times. Air traffic control tapes capture the military plane coordinating its flight with the control tower at nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Investigators were still working to determine why the event was not properly coordinated with law enforcement officials in Washington, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. Several federal agencies began jostling officials as the plane circled overhead.
The capital region is defended by several surface-to-air missile sites, as well as military crews on 24-hour alert. It does not appear that any of these systems have been jammed.
Officials believe, based on a preliminary review, that the pilot may not have properly reported takeoff or did not receive proper clearance, the sources said. They were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
Pelosi said: “Congress looks forward to considering the results of a thorough after-action review that will determine precisely what went wrong today and who at the Federal Aviation Administration will be held accountable for this error. outrageous and frightening.”
The plane landed at Andrews around 6.50pm after the paratroopers descended into midfield at Nationals Park. The stadium, home of the Washington Nationals baseball team, is just over a mile from the United States Capitol.
One witness to the chaos on Capitol Hill was Eireann Dolan, the wife of Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle. “I was walking the dogs in front of the Dirksen Senate office building,” Dolan tweeted. “People started streaming all at once. They told me to turn around and leave as soon as possible. Some people were calm but many were really panicked. I know I was.
Buildings in the Capitol complex reopened shortly after 8 p.m.