Duluth-based F-16's scramble to intercept stolen plane
WAUSAU, Wis. -- F-16 aircraft from the Air National Guard 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth scrambled and intercepted a plane stolen Monday from Canada.
A man suspected of stealing the Cessna in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and flying erratically across three states was trying to commit suicide, hoping he would be shot down by military fighter planes, a state trooper said today.
Adam Dylan Leon, 31, was arrested at a convenience store in Ellsinore, Mo., shortly after landing the single-engine, four-seat Cessna on a rural Missouri road Monday night, ending a six-hour flight, police said.
The 148th's planes intercepted the plane near Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the Wisconsin border, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The 148th was replaced by fighters from the Wisconsin Air National Guard based out of Madison, who then handed off the pursuit to the Louisiana Air National Guard fighters from New Orleans.
The plane was tracked as a "flight safety issue" and was not believed to be a terrorist threat, Mike Kucharek, spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said in a telephone interview from Colorado Springs.
The Missouri state trooper who arrested Leon said on ABC's "Good Morning America" that the pilot told him he had hoped to be shot down.
"He made a statement that he was trying to commit suicide and he didn't have the courage to do it himself. And his idea was to fly the aircraft into the United States, where he would be shot down," Trooper Justin Watson said on ABC.
Watson said Leon apparently hitched a ride to the convenience store after landing on a highway and taxiing the plane to a side road. He didn't appear surprised when the officer entered the convenience store to arrest him.
Leon said "he didn't have any ID, but he was the person we were looking for," Watson said.
He said Leon "gave me no indication that it was anything other than he was having personal problems and was in an attempt to end his life."
"He did state that he thought at one time he was getting shot down, but apparently the Air Force were just shooting flares," the trooper said. Calls to Watson's home were not returned.
Sgt. Marty Elmore of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said the plane landed on a desolate stretch of U.S. 60 before taxiing onto Route FF. A passer-by stopped to offer help.
"He got a ride from a local resident who stopped to check on him, a good Samaritan, and the individual took him to a convenience store," Elmore said. "He was drinking Gatorade when the officers came in and confronted him."
Leon was originally jailed in Butler County but was moved shortly after 5 a.m. Tuesday to Mississippi County, which holds federal suspects, according to a Butler County jail official. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The plane was reported stolen Monday afternoon from Confederation College Flight School at Thunder Bay International Airport in Ontario.
The pilot was flying erratically and didn't communicate with the fighter pilots, Kucharek said at the Aerospace Defense Command.
The pilot acknowledged seeing the F-16s but didn't obey their nonverbal commands to follow them, Kucharek said.
The plane's path over Wisconsin prompted a brief, precautionary evacuation of the Wisconsin capitol in Madison, although there were few workers in the building at the time and the governor was not in town.
The Cessna 172 continued south over Illinois and eastern Missouri before landing near Ellsinore, about 120 miles south-southwest of St. Louis.
The plane landed about six hours after the reported theft, and had enough fuel for about eight hours of flight, NAADC officials said.
"We tailed it all the way," Maj. Brian Markin said. "Once it landed our aircraft returned to base."
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko told CNN that Leon was a native of Turkey who changed his name from Yavuz Berke and became a Canadian citizen last year.