A pair of sonic booms generated by two fighter jets speeding to protect President Obama in Seattle unleashed pandemonium in the South Sound on Tuesday – including temporarily shutting down Pierce County’s largest 911 dispatch center.
Residents from Olympia to Federal Way streamed into the streets when the thunderous booms shook the region about 1:50 p.m. People in Tacoma said the booms rattled windows and set off car alarms.
So many people dialed 911 in Pierce County that the Law Enforcement Support Agency’s switchboard couldn’t keep up with all the calls. Some people trying to report the booms received a busy signal until the switchboard came back on line.
King County dispatchers fielded more than 300 calls regarding the booms. At one point, 38 calls were backed up.
A wayward float plane on its way from Lake Chelan to Lake Washington triggered the action when it violated a no-fly zone put in place over the Seattle area to protect the president during his visit there.
Authorities scrambled two F-15s from the Oregon Air National Guard in Portland to intercept the plane. The fighters reached speeds faster than the speed of sound – 761 mph at sea level – as they raced north, setting off at least two sonic booms as they whizzed over Pierce county.
The float plane left the restricted area before the fighters arrived. Obama was never in danger, and no injuries or damage were reported. The pilot of the Cessna 180 was released after being questioned by the Secret Service, The Associated Press reported.
No sanctions have been announced for him or his passenger, who said that they were unaware that Obama was in Seattle stumping for Sen. Patty Murray and were shocked at the fuss that resulted from their flight.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe – is this the top news thing?” passenger Laura Joseph of Normandy Park asked The AP.
It all started at 1:38 p.m. when the Air National Guard’s 142nd Fighter Wing scrambled two of its jets.
In anticipation of Obama’s visit, the Federal Aviation Administration set up a 10-mile no-fly zone around the president’s location. There were flight restrictions for another 20-mile radius beyond that.
Air Force One was on the ground at King County International Airport/Boeing Field when the incident unfolded.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command – responsible for defending the nation’s airspace - said the agency ordered the scramble after an aircraft entered restricted airspace.
Stacey Knotts, a NORAD spokeswoman, said the jets didn’t intercept the floater plane because it left the restricted airspace before they got there. She said she didn’t know if the jets were called back to Portland or continued to patrol the area.
Pilots have the responsibility for finding out the location of restricted airspace before they set out but “sometimes they do accidentally fly into those,” Knotts said.
“Sometimes these things happen,” she said. “It’s not like there’s a big line in the sky.”
The plane that breached the restricted airspace landed at Kenmore Air, a seaplane base at Lake Washington that had been closed down for the president’s campaign visit.
Obama’s plane departed Seattle at 3:47 p.m.
Joseph, the passenger, said she and pilot Lee Daily didn’t know anything was wrong until they landed and were told they had to speak with the Secret Service.
She didn’t hear the sonic booms, but she said she saw an F-15 outside the window as the plane approached Seattle.
“I saw a jet, just a white jet going by,” she told The AP. “I thought it was kind of odd to see a military jet.”
The fighter only passed by the float plane once and didn’t take any other action, Joseph said.
The booms – which sounded back-to-back about 10 seconds apart– were caused by the fighter jets as they went supersonic, reaching at least the speed of sound at 761 mph. As the F-15s zoomed overhead, air was pushed aside so forcefully that it created a shock wave.
It wasn’t long before the 911 calls flooded in.
The King County sheriff’s dispatch center was inundated with callers but did not go down, Sgt. James Laing said.
Technical issues plagued LESA, but details were not immediately available.
“There are some technical issues that need to researched before we know exactly what went wrong,” said spokeswoman Kris Dessen. “I am told that some of our calls did go down.”
There were seven people scheduled to be working when the sonic booms prompted hundreds of emergency calls, she said.
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Staff writers Christian Hill, Mike Archbold, Kris Sherman, Jeff Mayor, Adam Lynn and Kathleen Cooper contributed to this report.