A sonic boom that echoed over Washington Sunday was caused by two fighter jets scrambling to intercept an unresponsive aircraft that later crashed in rural Virginia, officials told AFP.
Residents of the city and its suburbs reported hearing the thundering noise, which rattled windows and shook walls for miles and caused social media to light up with people asking what had happened.
The F-16 fighter jets “responded to an unresponsive Cessna 560 Citation V aircraft over Washington, DC, and northern Virginia,” the North American Aerospace Defense Command said in a statement.
The two jets were scrambled from Joint Base Andrews, a Pentagon official told AFP, and they followed the aircraft that subsequently crashed in a mountainous area of southwest Virginia, one of the states bordering Washington.
President Joe Biden, who was at the White House and also played golf Sunday, was briefed on the incident, an official told journalists without specifying whether any emergency precautions were implemented due to the incident.
Public records showed the plane was registered to Florida-based company Encore Motors of Melbourne, whose owner John Rumpel told The Washington Post his “entire family” was onboard, including his daughter, a grandchild and her nanny.
“We know nothing about the crash,” he said. “We are talking to the FAA now… I’ve got to keep the line clear.”
The civilian plane had taken off from Elizabethton, Tennessee and was bound for Long Island, New York, the FAA said.
However, flight tracking website Flightradar24 indicated that it had turned around after flying over Long Island and headed back south over Washington and into Virginia.
Multiple US media reported the crash wreckage still had not been located, with the Post stating that investigators hoped to reach the site Monday.
“The NORAD aircraft were authorized to travel at supersonic speeds and a sonic boom may have been heard by residents of the region,” the command said, adding that it also used flares to try to draw the pilot’s attention.
The unresponsive aircraft crashed somewhere near Montebello, Virginia, some 170 miles southwest of the nation’s capital at around 3:30 pm (1930 GMT), the FAA said.
NORAD said it had attempted to make contact with the pilot until the plane crashed, intercepting it at approximately 3:20 pm.
Multiple US media reported the military did not shoot down the plane.
The US Capitol Complex in Washington meanwhile “was briefly placed on an elevated alert until the airplane left the area,” Capitol Police said on Twitter.
As far away as Annapolis, Maryland some 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Washington, the city’s Office of Emergency Management quelled residents’ fears, writing on Twitter that the noise “was caused by an authorized DOD flight. This flight caused a sonic boom.”
The White House official meanwhile said the “sound resulting from the authorized DOD aircraft was faint” as far away as Joint Base Andrews, a 35-minute drive from the city.
Sonic booms occur when an aircraft exceeds the speed of sound. They can be a major nuisance, capable of not just startling people on the ground but also causing damage, like shattered windows.