Flight of the Intruder

  • Frank Eugene Corder seemed to know exactly how he wanted to die. Sometime before midnight on Sept. 11, he stole a single-engine plane from an airport north of Baltimore headed south to Washington, flew over the National Zoological Park and down to the Mall, probably using the Washington Monument as a beacon. As he neared the famed obelisk, he banked a tight U-turn over the Ellipse, came in low over the White House South Lawn, clipped a hedge, skidded across the green lawn that girds the South Portico and crashed into a wall two stories below the presidential bedroom. Corder was killed on impact.

    The scare was barely lessened by the fact that the Clintons had fortunately been spending the night across Pennsylvania Avenue at Blair House while White House workers repaired faulty duct work. Or that Corder, by all accounts, appears to have been on only a suicide mission and was not angry with Clinton or his policies. The unlikely incident confirmed all too publicly what security officials have long feared in private: the White House is vulnerable to sneak attack from the air. "For years I have thought a terrorist suicide pilot could readily divert his flight from an approach to Washington to blow up the White House," said Richard Helms, CIA director from 1966 to 1972. "It has been said that the Secret Service is primed for just such a venture. Perhaps so, but the episode this week hardly gives one much confidence."

    Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, who oversees the Secret Service, launched an immediate investigation into the flight and how to prevent it from recurring. Yet the threat from the air has been a secret worry for some time. The CIA often war-gamed terrorist attacks on the 18-acre White House complex and concluded each time that little could be done, short of installing unsightly Gatling guns on the roof. During the Gulf War, uniformed air-defense teams could be seen patrolling the top floor with automatic rifles or shoulder-mounted ground-to-air missiles. In theory the air-defense teams could take out a threatening plane if it could be spotted, identified and targeted in time. In practice, the notion of firing heavy weapons in an urban area is probably unwise, particularly when one can stand on the South Lawn and watch plane after plane taking off and landing at nearby National Airport. Heat- seeking missiles have been known to find targets other than those intended for destruction. In any case, at nearly 2 a.m. on that Monday, neither theory nor practice was tested. Corder's low-flying, small Cessna gave White House security personnel just enough time to dive out of the way.

    The fluky flight exposed a second seam in the White House defensive perimeter: warning procedures. In 1974, after a disgruntled U.S. Army private staged an unauthorized helicopter landing on the South Lawn, officials installed a special communications line from Washington's National Airport control tower to the Secret Service operations center. The hot line was supposed to help air-traffic controllers, who monitor local radar, to inform agents at the White House of any planes that were off course or appeared to be on a threatening vector. As it buzzed toward the White House, Corder's plane could be seen clearly on the otherwise quiet radar screens at National. But no one at the airport was watching. Air-traffic controllers on duty at the airport were busy handling other duties. Hence, no warning call. No one took responsibility for the breakdown in procedures last week. The air-traffic controllers union said that Federal Aviation Administration rules require controllers to monitor only scheduled flights after National's curfew. The FAA, which is responsible for air-traffic control at National, refused to explain its policy on late-night radar surveillance and said no new policies or practices had been implemented in the days since the Corder crash. A spokesman for the Secret Service said the FAA policy will be reviewed during the next 90 days.

    Less likely to change will be the Secret Service's early assessment of Corder, a man who had recently suffered multiple losses in his life: his business; his father, who died last year; and his marriage. He had talked increasingly of suicide. Corder lived in a beat-up yellow Cadillac in Aberdeen, Maryland, and was writing bad checks at convenience stores for food. At one point, he told friends that he hoped to buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and ride across the country to the West Coast. Another time, Corder said he believed crashing an airplane into the White House would be a novel way to die.

    Cindy Jianniney, a maid at Aberdeen's Keyser's Motel who took Corder in during his last week, said he appeared to smoke crack cocaine regularly and seemed "really depressed." On Saturday morning, she said, he complained of missing his wife and seemed to hit bottom. On Sunday night, she recalled, Corder told inhabitants of the motel about "his airplane." He asked Jianniney if she wanted to go up for a ride in what he said was his single- engine Piper. She declined. Shortly thereafter he left for a nearby airport. The next day the motel was overrun by law-enforcement agents.