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The Sad Spiral of Frank Corder

In Washington D.C.

September 12, 1994

The “P-56” Airspace...

 

Around the monuments and federal structures of Washington DC lies the “P-56” Prohibited airspace, in which flight of aircraft is not allowed, usually due to security concerns. Most notably, the P-56 covers the U.S. Capitol building, the National Mall, the U.S. Naval Observatory (where the Vice President resides), the Pentagon, and the White House.

 

It is one of many types of special use airspace designations and is depicted on aeronautical charts with the letter "P" followed by a serial number. It differs from Restricted airspace in that entry is typically forbidden at all times from all aircraft and is not subject to clearance from Air Traffic Control or the airspace's controlling authority.

 

And into the complex, one sleepy Monday morning, a drunk & stoned pilot would leave his mark by flying a Cessna where no plane had, and never should have, gone before...

 

The Life of Frank Corder...

 

Frank Eugene Corder was born on May 26, 1956. He dropped out of Aberdeen High School in 10th grade, but had earned a General Equivalency Diploma, and he enlisted in the National Guard in Aberdeen in October 1974. After he completed basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in December 1974, he was sent to Fort Carson, Colorado, where he was trained as a generator mechanic.

Corder was released from active duty after nine months, in July 1975, with his last rank being private (E-2). At the age of 21, he started work as a trucker, a house builder, and later started a trucking business, Delmarva Freight, Inc., which specialized in hauling cargo from the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He had been divorced twice and had a daughter from his first marriage.

 

But, in April of 1993, Corder's father - an airplane mechanic, founder of an Aberdeen flying club, and amateur pilot who passed on his love of flying - died and, in November, Corder's business failed, which was quickly followed by hospitalization - treatment of alcoholism - at the Veterans' Administration hospital in Perry Point, Maryland. Early in 1994, he was convicted of a drug offense, and his marriage, to his third wife of ten years, broke up in August. In early September of 1994, he moved into Keyser's Motel, a modest residential motel in Aberdeen, Maryland. Neighbors at the motel noted that they saw Corder using illegal narcotics on a daily basis, and that he had attempted to sell some to others.

 

The Beginning of the End...

 

On Sunday, September 11, 1994, after spending an evening with his brother consuming alcohol and smoking crack cocaine, the 38-year-old asked his brother to drop him off in the vicinity of Aldino Airport (also known as the Harford County Airport) in Churchville, Maryland. Corder walked to the airport and found the keys to a Cessna 150 airplane, registered as N1405Q,  that had been returned to the airport earlier that evening after having been rented by another individual.

 

About two years prior, Corder had taken a couple of introductory flight lessons with Joseph V. Kesser, the manager of the small airport. Kesser recollected that Corder talked of wishful plans to own an airline or air cargo service akin to FedEx. But Corder never completed his pilot's license - as Kesser refused to give him instruction after hearing from a state trooper that Corder had been "busted for drugs."

 

But – despite being high on cocaine - and between his flight experiences with his father, flight instruction with Kesser, and the knowledge gleaned from building his own airplane in his parent's garage, Frank Corder knew enough about flying a small airplane to start the plane's engine at about 11:55 pm, and take off into the night sky.

 

A Blip on the Scope...

 

At Baltimore/Washington International Airport, the radar signal broadcast from the plane Corder had just stolen appeared on their scopes in the vicinity of York, Pennsylvania, at 1:06 the next morning – September 12th. He flew south for a short time, and then turned to the west.

 

Then, at 1:44 AM, the tower at National Airport began receiving radar signals that showed that Corder was flying at an altitude of 2700 feet, about six and a half miles north of the White House. Corder then started to descend, dropping a thousand feet in altitude over the span of three minutes. Then, the plane resumed a southbound course, passing over Washington Circle, and violating the P-56 prohibited airspace at 1:48 AM, flying towards the National Mall and continuing to descend.

 

Then, the plane passed over the Ellipse, located south of the White House, and dove directly towards the Executive Mansion at a steep angle of descent. A minute later, with the flaps up and the throttle fully forward, the plane plowed into the White House's South Lawn, skidding across the ground and its left wing was clipped by the magnolia tree just west of the South Portico steps (which was planted during Andrew Jackson's presidency), and impacted the southwest corner of the first floor of the Mansion's West Wing.

 

Responding to the Unimagined...

 

Within moments, Secret Service agents hurried to the crash site, and found the pilot's broken body. Within minutes of the crash, additional Secret Service personnel were dispatched to the site and a security perimeter was established. As a precaution, the Technical Security Division of the Secret Service, as well as a military Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, were called to investigate for possible explosives. Lastly, the D.C. Fire Department and paramedics were summoned, and National Airport's control tower was contacted regarding the crash.

 

Within one hour of the crash, individuals representing seven agencies were at the site. In addition to Secret Service and military EOD personnel, the FBI, the Metropolitan Police Department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the National Transportation Safety Board, had all responded to the crash to facilitate rendering the scene safe, ensuring that the airplane did not contain explosives, securing the evidence, and initiating the criminal investigation.

 

Corder had been killed instantly, dying from multiple, massive blunt-force injuries. The D.C. Medical Examiner found both cocaine and alcohol (a level of 0.045 - while the legal limit for pilots is 0.04 and in most states, drivers with a level over 0.10 are considered under the influence of alcohol) in Corder's blood after the crash, and ruled his death a suicide.

 

In the wake of the crash, a re-evaluation in security procedures around the White House, as Corder had violated the “P-56” prohibited airspace. Though the White House was reportedly equipped with Stinger surface-to-air missiles, none were fired – for fear of the “what-if” the missiles missed their target and struck one of the structures of downtown Washington.

 

Finding the Seeds of a Suicide...

 

Those who knew him recalled that Corder had been "depressed about losing his business and marriage and that he was going to get a plane and kill himself."

 

Corder's 41-year-old brother, John, said that Corder had expressed interest in Mathias Rust, the German teenager who flew a Cessna plane through over 500 miles of heavily defended Soviet air space and landed in Red Square in 1987. John Corder quoted his brother as saying of the German: "The guy made a name for himself."

 

Friends claim he bore no ill will towards President Bill Clinton and likely only wanted the publicity of the stunt – fulfilling an ambition he had expressed to friends to kill himself "in a big way" by flying an airplane into the White House, or into the dome of the Capitol. According to his brother, "I don't think he had any party affiliation," he said. "I don't think he was registered." He simply described his brother as "a loner who would not talk about his problems."

The President was not even in the Executive Mansion at the time due to renovation of the heating air ducts there, but was instead staying at Blair House – the official guest house of commander-in-chief.

Federal investigators examined the wreck, found the flaps and throttle in position for landing and revealed the findings.  The evidence supported the belief, shared by President Clinton, that Mr. Corder's final flight was a botched stunt by a man with drug and alcohol problems, not a suicidal dive as many people had thought.  A Secret Service spokesman, Carl Meyer, did say that investigators "were looking for indicators of a landing vs. a crash. That is part of the $64,000 question."

Those settings show Corder was "trying to land as slowly as he could," Joseph Mancusi, one of the plane's owners, said.

The Legacy of that Day...

 

Corder's crash was one of several attacks on the White House during the Clinton presidency. Six weeks after the crash, a deranged man, dressed in a trenchcoat, used a submachine gun to fire upon the White House. Secret Service and personnel from the Presidential Protective Division had to gun down the madman into order to protect the public, as well as the President – who was in the Oval Office at the time.

 

Seven years after Corder's suicide, almost to the day - on September 11th, 2001 - four commercial airliners were hijacked by Islamic radical terrorists, the pilots killed, and the jets – still with passengers and fuel, were used as guided missiles to attack symbolic targets in the United States. The passengers of the fourth hijacked plane, United Flight #93, staged a retaking of the plane, but it ultimately crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It is widely thought that its intended target was either the U.S. Capitol building, or the White House.

 

In 2006, a plaque featuring the bent propeller of the Cessna, surrounded by various gauges and a plate bearing the aircraft's vehicle identification number, was sold on eBay. The plaque was put together by the plane's insurer.

 

The lives of alcoholics can still be turned around with a stint at a residential alcohol abuse treatment facility.

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