Washington, DC

Nationals Stunt Didn’t Threaten National Security

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Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals, was the source of a national security scare.KENGRIFFEYFAN24, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0

By JB Manheim

Okay, so it's less than a month into the new season, and you have staked a claim to last place that is likely to stand up in court. Okay, so you are two years out from winning the World Series and your owners are looking to dump the franchise. And okay, so your third baseman walked over to the pitcher's mound in the top of the first a few days ago and blew chunks. These things happen.

But forcing an evacuation of the United States Capitol? That's got to be a first. Even the old Senators couldn't achieve that one. It used to be enough to get a President or two to throw out a first pitch. But disrupting the line of succession? C'mon, man.

For those who missed it, in the early evening of Wednesday, April 20, the US Capitol Police sent out an urgent bulletin advising anyone in the Capitol Building or on the grounds to run for their very lives. The evacuation order was succinct. Drop whatever you are doing, and get the heck away from here. Do not -- repeat, do NOT -- go to your regular emergency staging area. Just go! This, it would seem, is government speak for "Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200."

The cause? Capitol Police had spotted an unidentified aircraft circling near the Capitol complex, and feared an attack was imminent.

Veterans of the Congressional Baseball Game and their aides fled in a panic as the media picked up the alert and spread the word far and wide. Terrorists were about to launch an air attack on the seat of Democracy.

In a time made nervous by COVID masking disputes, trials of alleged insurrectionists, rising crime and mayhem, busloads of unscreened border jumpers being dropped on the Capitol steps courtesy of the Governor of Texas, war in Ukraine and nuclear threats from Vlad the Assailer, missile tests on the Korean Peninsula, rockets in the Middle East, lockdowns in Shanghai, rampant inflation, and even a raging debate over the moral integrity of America's favorite rodent -- in such a time, anything was possible.

Except....

It was Military Appreciation Night at Nationals Park. Before the fourth inning of every game, the Nationals stop everything to honor wounded service members and their families. Even the umps applaud. It's nice. But once a year the team goes further.

Special uniforms, high-powered guests from the Pentagon, big flag in center field. It's a great tradition. And this year's event was highlighted by the US Army Golden Knights parachute team, on tap to jump into the stadium before the start of the game against the D’Backs.

The stadium, you should know, is on South Capitol Street, as in the Capitol, and before it was surrounded by high-rise construction, once provided a lovely view of the dome a few short blocks away.

The Army's Viking Twin Otter took off from Joint Base Andrews, about 5 to 10 minutes flying time from the stadium, and arrived on station early, spending perhaps half-an-hour circling over the field and carefully avoiding the restricted airspace above the Capitol itself. It was sometime toward the end of this half hour that the Capitol Police apparently took notice.

The Army, of course, knew of the flight, as did the Navy and the Air Force since it had departed from their shared facility. No jets were scrambled.

The FAA knew of the flight because they were tracking it, and the pilot was in contact with the air controllers at nearby Reagan National throughout. In fact, the flight, identified as GKA264, was clearly visible, and trackable, on public apps like FlightRadar24. 

So, why the Capitol Police did not know about the flight is an open question. Perhaps it was a failure to communicate that would make Cool Hand Luke proud. There are, after all, only six local law enforcement agencies in DC (12 if you count federal law enforcement with local jurisdictions), and another 23 uniformed federal enforcement agencies, plus eight university police forces and a like number of private law enforcement agencies.

Then there are the 10 military bases in the District representing all of the uniformed services. And none of that counts the agencies and bases, like Andrews, or, say, The Pentagon, in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. So maybe there is no evident need for reliable cross-communication. Or maybe the FAA was simply going down its alphabetical call list and hadn't gotten to the "U's" yet (as in US Capitol). We'll likely never know.

But there is another question. The Twin Otter has a top rated speed of 184 mph. The White House is precisely 1.7 miles from the Capitol Building as the crow, or in this case the Otter, flies. One would think that might also be a target of interest. By my calculation, it would take the plane about half-a-minute to reach the executive mansion from its parking lot in the sky. And yet, the White House was apparently never locked down or evacuated. Did they not know? Did the Capitol Police call to share their alarm? Or are things worse between our executive and legislative branches than we had realized?

That's all well and good, of course. But the real question is this: What will the Nationals do for next year's Military Appreciation Night, and to whom will they do it?

And oh yeah, the Nationals lost the game, 11-2. Another tradition in the making.

IBWAA member JB Manheim is the author of The Cooperstown Trilogy, three novels that explore the history, mysteries, deceptions and intrigue that lie hidden beyond the green grass and the iconic heroes of professional baseball. The final two books in the series, The GameKeepers: Whitewash, Blackmail, and Baseball's Dirtiest Secrets, and Doubleday Doubletake, were published by Summer Game Books in March 2022. Details at jbmanheimbooks.com. You can reach the author at jerry@themanheims.net.

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