By Dan Weikel and Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES — A small private plane carrying a load of marijuana strayed into President Barack Obama’s no-fly zone over Los Angeles Thursday and was forced to land at Long Beach Airport after being intercepted by U.S. Air Force jet fighters, authorities said.
The four-seat Cessna entered the restricted airspace about 11 a.m. as the president was flying from Orange County to Los Angeles aboard Marine 1, a military helicopter provided for his use. Federal officials said the aircraft was never close enough to endanger Obama.
Air traffic controllers tried repeatedly to contact the single-engine Cessna, authorities said, but the pilot, apparently flying under visual flight rules, did not respond. The plane was quickly intercepted by two F-16 fighters from March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, officials added.
After the Cessna touched down, federal agents and Long Beach police detained the pilot for questioning and found what law enforcement officials described as a large amount of marijuana on board the aircraft. News reports indicated the load weighed at least 7 pounds.
The pilot was taken into custody by Long Beach police, but his identity and other details were not released because of the continuing drug investigation.
Aircraft typically are prohibited from flying within 10 miles of any plane or helicopter carrying the president. The required separation for small private planes is about 30 miles.
Brian Leary, a spokesman for the United States Secret Service, which provides protection for the president, said the plane violated temporary restrictions that had been imposed for Obama’s visit by the Federal Aviation Administration. But the breach of the restrictions “do not appear to be of protective interest” to his agency, Leary said.
Pilots who violate airspace restricted for security reasons can face revocations of their flying certificates, FAA officials said. If illegal drugs are found onboard, the aircraft can be confiscated by law enforcement.
After his morning fundraisers, Obama departed from Los Angeles International Airport about 2:45 p.m. and flew to San Francisco, White House officials said. They declined to comment on the air space violation.
It was not clear who was piloting the Cessna, which according to federal records was manufactured in 1961. The plane’s FAA registration lists the owner as David W. Major, 52, of Grover Beach, Calif., a town south of Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo County.
Major holds a student pilot certificate issued in 2008, according to the FAA. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.