Shooting down stolen plane not considered, Defense official says

Wednesday, April 8, 2009 | 4:44 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — The agency charged with defending North American air space never seriously considered shooting down a rogue pilot who flew into U.S. airspace because it quickly determined that he had no hostile intent, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Adam Dylan Leon is accused of stealing a single-engine Cessna 172 from his Ontario flight school Monday and flying erratically over three states before landing more than seven hours later on a desolate stretch of highway in southern Missouri. Authorities said Leon didn't communicate with anyone and had no map or flight plan.

The FBI and Missouri State Highway Patrol have said Leon told them he was trying to commit suicide, hoping U.S. fighter jets would shoot him down.

North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman Mike Kucharek said lethal force was an option, but one that was ruled out soon after a pair of F-16 fighter jets began tailing the plane.

"In this instance, I don't think it was considered," Kucharek said. "We knew very early on it was a stolen aircraft, learned pretty early on he didn't have hostile intent."

Defense officials quickly learned that the pilot was Leon, who was born Yavuz Berke in Turkey before moving to Canada and becoming a naturalized citizen, according to Kucharek.

"He didn't threaten population centers and didn't appear to be threatening critical infrastructure," Kucharek said. "And then, you don't want to provoke someone into doing something they weren't going to do in the first place by taking some sort of aggressive posture."

Kucharek said the decision to shoot down goes to the president or the secretary of defense. If both are unavailable, a group within NORAD can decide.

Leon, 31, is in custody in St. Louis and facing federal charges of transportation of stolen property and illegal entry. His next court appearance will be at a detention hearing Friday. He does not yet have an attorney and will be appointed a federal public defender, a court clerk said.

Jet pilots used hand gestures and flares to try to get Leon to land the plane, but "he just kept heading south," said John Gillies, the FBI agent in charge of the St. Louis office.

At times, Leon flew as high as 14,000 feet — extraordinarily high for a non-pressurized aircraft, said Catherine Hanaway, the U.S. attorney in St. Louis.

The plane was dangerously close to running out of fuel when it landed on U.S. 60 near Ellsinore. The pilot taxied the plane to a side road and got a ride from a passer-by and they then stopped at Simmons Grocery and Hardware, where Leon used the restroom, bought a Gatorade and sat at a booth until state troopers arrived and arrested him.

According to the federal complaint, Leon told the FBI he "has not felt like himself lately" and he recently was being treated by a psychiatrist.

Leon would face up to 10 years in prison if convicted and would serve any sentence in the U.S. before being deported, Hanaway said.

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