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Sonic boom shakes DC as F-16s intercept Cessna before crash

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A thunderous sonic boom rang out in the skies over Washington DC on Sunday as two F-16 Fighting Falcons were scrambled to intercept a civilian aircraft entering restricted airspace over the nation’s capital.

While the civilian aircraft, a Cessna 560 Citation V business jet, ultimately crashed, the loud noise that startled many residents actually came from the intercepting fighters breaking the sound barrier during their intercept.

According to reports, the Cessna crashed with four people on board, none of whom survived.

For the most part, U.S. law prohibits supersonic flight over the United States due in no small part to public concern and even damage to property the resulting sonic booms can produce. However, two F-16s scrambled out of Joint Base Andrews were authorized to fly at supersonic speeds over Washington on Sunday in order to close with and assess any potential threat posed by the business jet.

Related: Approaching Mach 2 in an F-16: ‘The jet started to shake’

F-16s did not fire upon the business jet, but did deploy flares

(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Andrew J. Moseley)

The Cessna 560 Citation V reportedly belonged to Encore Motors of Melbourne, Inc. operated out of Florida. John Rumpel, husband of the company’s president, Barbara Rumpel, told the Washington Post that the family’s two daughters, their 2-year-old grandchild, and her nanny were all on board the aircraft when it went down. The group was reportedly traveling home to East Hampton, New York after a trip to North Carolina.

Unfortunately, by the time of intercept, the aircraft had already overshot its intended destination by more than 300 miles. According to flight tracker data available through FlightAware, the aircraft appeared to make a complete 180-degree turn as it approached the New York area, heading back over the nation’s capital.

As the two F-16s approached it, they reported that the pilot appeared to be unconscious. The two fighters made multiple attempts to get the pilot’s attention, eventually even deploying flares commonly used to confuse inbound infrared-guided missiles, but to no avail. The intercept reportedly took place at approximately 3:20 p.m. local time, and by 3:50, the State Police were notified of the aircraft going down near the George Washington National Forest in Virginia.

“The pilot was unresponsive and the Cessna subsequently crashed near the George Washington National Forest, Virginia,” the NORAD release said. “NORAD attempted to establish contact with the pilot until the aircraft crashed.”

Law enforcement finally reached the remote crash site by foot at approximately 8:00 p.m. after a multi-hour search in the Staunton-Blue Ridge Parkway area. Unfortunately, upon their arrival, law enforcement reported no survivors among the wreckage.

An investigation into the cause of the crash is underway. On Sunday afternoon, the National Transportation Safety Board took to Twitter to say their own investigators would arrive on the scene Monday to begin “the process of documenting the scene and examining the aircraft.”

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.