WASHINGTON -- There came a message on Wednesday from the skies 11,000 feet above the national monuments: "This is God. Convict + Remove. Or Else." Then, there came the Secret Service, pursuing a skywriting pilot all the way to the Eastern Shore, where he was detained for four hours because his craft had come dangerously close to infiltrating protected White House airspace.
What was planned as an eye-catching impeachment protest went somewhat awry. The pilot, just a hired gun, was terrified that the Secret Service was after him. Organizers of the protest had plans for more skywriting later in the day, but they were foiled by the run-in with federal agents.
Airport officials and local police on Kent Island were alarmed and incredulous when, out of the blue, federal authorities ordered them to ground the little red-and-white plane that flew in from Washington until an agent could get there. Airport personnel scurried out in a pickup truck to block the plane from taxiing for takeoff.
"When the Secret Service calls, people tend to get excited," said Cpl. Roy L. Rafter of the Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Department. He said he questioned the pilot, Frank Barchi of Neptune, N.J., until a federal agent arrived.
"He said, 'I didn't do anything wrong. I'm just a messenger,' " Rafter recalled.
While the Secret Service hasn't closed its investigation, spokesman Jim Mackin said it was satisfied to let Barchi go after discussing the message with him and confirming with the Federal Aviation Administration that he had not flown where he shouldn't have.
"Initial reports were than an airplane had violated restricted airspace," Mackin said. "It had not."
The uproar began after Gene McDonald, 50, a participant in a pro-impeachment Internet chat group who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., hired an aviation company to send a noticeable message to the Senate that he thought President Clinton should be convicted.
After delivering the message, Barchi, 38, was scheduled to refuel his single-engine plane on the Eastern Shore, then fly to New York City to sketch "NBC. Clinton a rapist? Air the interview" across the sky.
McDonald also arranged that message, to urge NBC to broadcast a rumored interview that the network is said to have done with a woman who claimed she was raped by Clinton 20 years ago.
McDonald tracked the progress of his pilot throughout the day Wednesday and was disappointed when he learned that Barchi had just taken off from Kent Island at 5 p.m. -- after his questioning by the Secret Service -- as darkness was about to fall.
The plane reached the New York area after 6 p.m., too late to put on a good show.
"I understand the role of the Secret Service. There are wackos out there. They've got to do things like this," said McDonald, who runs a small business in Florida that leases pay phones to gas stations and laundromats.
"But he's just a pilot. He only knows the message because he has to lay it out with the turns and everything. He's due in at 3: 30 and doesn't show up until 6: 05? That's not just a few questions and a show-me-your-ID."
Barchi could not be reached last night. His wife, Serena Barchi, said she rushed to a small airport in Belmar, N.J., to wait for her husband Wednesday afternoon when she had not heard from him all day.
"I was a nervous wreck," she said. "He missed work that night, fell asleep on the couch at 8 p.m." She added that she is a Clinton supporter and that her husband doesn't talk about politics much.
McDonald said he also hired planes to fly over Miami during last month's Super Bowl with banners carrying political messages. He said he collected several thousand dollars from other subscribers to "FreeRepublic.com," a pro-impeachment Web site, to pay for Wednesday's project.
The skywriting in Washington and New York was postponed for more than a week by high winds or clouds, and McDonald said he hopes to get the message over New York in the coming days.
On Wednesday, someone posted a plaintive message on the Free Republic site saying the skywriting over Washington was visible but unspectacular.
"GOD looks like COD," the person wrote. "And one word would dissolve before the next one was hardly begun. Pretty disappointing. Sorry."
On the Eastern Shore, John G. Kirby, the manager at Bay Bridge Airport, said that as Barchi's plane pulled away Wednesday, skywriting smoke ejectors were open and the airport was doused with thick, oily smoke.
"He definitely had some nerve to do that," Kirby said. "I guess he was pretty ticked off."
Sun staff writer Chris Guy contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 2/12/99