A homeless man wearing a brightly colored knit cap with distinctive balls on top was able to wander around Joint Base Andrews for five hours on Feb. 4 and enter a jet used to ferry distinguished visitors, thanks to a series of security errors, according to the findings of an Air Force inspector general’s review of the incident at the home of Air Force One.
The incident happened due to a combination of human error by an inattentive security forces airman, a malfunctioning entry gate and the failure to observe the man on the flightline or on the aircraft, the report, released Thursday, states.
While the 747 used to ferry the president was never in danger, the incident pointed out several flaw in base security, the 22-page, heavily redacted report showed. And it also sparked a global review of security at Air Force bases.
No systemic security failures were found at Andrews, but officials have ordered retraining and are installing additional security equipment like cameras and motion-sensing devices.
The man in the funny hat
The trouble at Joint Base Andrews began at 7:16 a.m. Feb. 4 when a man entered the base via the Virginia Gate of Joint Base Andrews, according to the report.
He was wearing dark pants, a dark jacket, black high top sneakers, and carrying a brown backpack, according to the report.“
On his head, he had a bright red or pink cap that partially covered his ears and had distinctive balls on top that looked a little like mouse ears,” according to the report. “Other than the hat, outfit resembled the clothing commonly worn by civilian.”
Air Force officials have declined to identify him, but the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office told Air Force Times his name is Joseph Armstrong, and he was wanted on a charge of failure to appear on a larceny charge, according to Maj. Tara Johnson, director of administration for Arlington County Sheriff’s Office. Prince George’s (Md.) County jail records indicate he is 36 years old. He is still being held at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds, Maryland, according to jail officials. The Air Force IG report and local court records show he has a long criminal history.
The man had no apparent prior connection to the base, said Air Force Inspector General, Lt. Gen. Sami Said, speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon. And there is no indication that a similar incident had ever occurred before at Joint Base Andrews.
There was a cascading series of failures that enabled the man to enter the aircraft, Said said.
A security forces airman, distracted by issues in his personal life, “allowed this individual on base without checking proper credentials,” Said said. The airman, who was later disciplined, admitted that he had the necessary training to check the man, but failed to do so, he said.
The man then drove around the base for the next five hours, stopping at the base exchange and eventually making his way toward the 89th Airlift Wing passenger terminal and accessed the flight line through a gap in a malfunctioning gate, which was left open by about 18 inches, Said said. The report indicated that the gate had a history of malfunctions, but that in the preceding days, nobody reported any issues.
The next point of failure came when the man wandered around the flightline and ultimately boarded the C-40 transport jet, according to the report.
The roving security forces patrol as well as airmen on board aircraft, who were involved with training at the time, “failed to challenge the individual,” said Said. The two aircrew members conducting training on the aircraft “did not challenge him when he entered the airplane.”
It was only after the man exited the aircraft that security forces from the 316th Security Forces Squadron, alerted someone in the passenger terminal who noticed that the man looked out of place. Armstrong was arrested for unauthorized access to the flight line and turned over to local authorities.
There was “zero reason” to believe the man intended to harm anyone, Said said.
“His response was that ‘I just wanted to see airplanes,’” said Said.
A search of his car found nothing that could be used to harm anyone, he said, adding that wire cutters were found.
In addition, Said estimated the man was about a mile from the area that houses the 747 designated as Air Force One when the president is aboard.
“We are 100 percent certain he never could have gotten close,” said Said. “There are layers of security there orders of magnitude higher.”
As a result of the intrusion, base commander Col. Tyler Schaff ordered a thorough review of what happened and ways to prevent such intrusions from happening again. Said said his review did not identify any systemic problems, such as training, that contributed to the breach, commanders “took it upon themselves to do a climate assessment.”
While not totally complete, “… it comes back to people make mistakes,” said Said. “I am not saying we are accepting of that, but people make mistakes and have breakdowns.”
Base officials, he said, are planning to upgrade cameras in some locations and install motion-sensing devices.
Said said he was “confident that people are paying attention and doubling down on any weaknesses” that led to the breach.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the base “100 percent went into an almost total lockdown.”
Afterward, officials at JBA “put a lot of measures in place, adding additional checks, locking the gate shut, increasing patrols,” he said.
Said said that he did not want to divulge too many details about changes, citing security protocols, but said that new cameras, additional detection equipment and retraining are part of it.
In addition to the review of the JBA situation, the Air Force is conducting a global security review that launched about two weeks ago, Said said.
“Given several other breaches in the last year or so across Air Force installations, not here but worldwide, we are also doing a broader review of installation security to make sure we are not missing anything.”
That review, being conducted by the Air Force Logistics and Security Directorate, will take “a few months to do,” he said.
The JBA breach followed one at RAF Mildenhall in England on Jan. 23, when a man drove through an exit gate and onto the base.
It was the second gate breach there in less than four years.
In addition, JBA officials say a man was arrested March 6 after repeatedly ramming his Ford F-150 into a security gate.
The base is home to the 316th Wing, 89th Airlift Wing and Air Force One, the 113th Wing, ANG Readiness Center, 459th Air Refueling Wing and Naval Air Facility Washington.
Known as “The President’s Wing,” the 89th Airlift Wing serves as the elite Air Mobility Command wing for transporting VIPs around the world, according to the base Facebook page.
“Not only does Andrews provide service for America’s senior officials, but also kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, popes, and local and foreign military leaders make Andrews AFB their first stop in the United States,” it states.
Technically, “Air Force One” is used to designate any Air Force aircraft carrying the president, but it is now standard practice to use the term to refer to specific planes that are equipped to transport the commander in chief, according to the White House homepage.
Today, this name refers to one of two highly customized Boeing 747-200B series aircraft, which carry the tail codes 28000 and 29000.
The Air Force designation for the aircraft is VC-25A. It is only referred to as Air Force One when the president is on board.
White House officials told Military Times the intruder never got close to that aircraft.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.