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Off course near plant, pilots nearly draw jets

A small plane blown off course Monday on its way to Cedar Key flew too close to the Florida Power nuclear power plant, nearly causing the military to dispatch jets to order the aircraft to land, officials said.

Two men inside the plane, a single-engine Piper PA28-161, were questioned by the Citrus County Sheriff's Office after landing at Crystal River Airport about 3:30 p.m., but were allowed to leave shortly afterward.

"There was nothing out of the ordinary except for their flight (path)," said Sgt. Ed Lane, who searched the plane.

Authorities identified the pilot as 57-year-old Andre Liechti, a Swiss police officer in Florida for flight training. His instructor was 23-year-old Carl Lyche of Florida Aviation Career Training Inc. in St. Augustine.

The men were on a training flight from St. Augustine to Cedar Key. As they approached Gainesville, they turned toward the coast but were blown off course by steady winds, Lane said.

Lyche, reached by telephone later Monday afternoon, said when they reached the gulf coast it was evident they were not at Cedar Key.

So they turned south, thinking that was the direction of the airport. Moments later, he said, they saw the nuclear plant. "I wasn't sure if it was a nuclear plant, a coal plant or just a factory," Lyche said.

He said he then made radio contact with air traffic controllers in Jacksonville, who told him the nearest airport was Crystal River.

The flight plan deviation attracted the attention of the Federal Aviation Administration and the military, which can dispatch jets to intercept a plane, as happened last fall when a small craft got too close to the nuclear plant.

In this case, jets were ready to fly but the order was called off at the last minute, a spokesman for North American Aerospace Defense Command said.

"We were ready to act and ready to protect that power plant if need be," Maj. Don Arias said. "Luckily it turned out to be some aviators who were having a hard time."

Though the no-fly zones put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have been lifted, pilots have been issued notices to stay away from sensitive infrastructure, such as power plants, refineries and dams.

Arias said the FAA was able to determine, with the help of the Crystal River Airport, that the men were lost.

"Of course it's a stupid mistake, but Jacksonville never told us were were off course," Lyche said. "It was big surprise when we finally figured out what happened."