First off, he seemed like a fairly competent pilot. He steered away from large urban areas and his climb/descend actions were not necessarily unusual, especially if he was trying to test the intercept fighters to see if there was any difference in their reactions based on altitude. The landing on US highway 60--at night--in rural Missouri--could not have been very easy. Here's a map of the area (the highway is divided):
He also picked the day after a major storm system had moved east, therefore if his jaunt was truly spur of the moment he got lucky. Early April can often bring large thunderstorm complexes in flyover country--wander into one of those with a 172 and there's no need for F16s to shoot you down.
From the looks of the weather map there were cloud layers along the way, mainly after Iowa, so he could have flown through some as he meandered southward between 14,000 and 3000 feet. But the cloud ceilings were relatively high so he could have sneaked underneath the overcast on his way south and had no clouds to bother him during descent to land. But it would have been very dark with no moon to help light his highway 60 'runway'.
If indeed this suicidal maniac remained clear of clouds he dodged yet another potentially fatal bullet as few pilots without instrument training survive very long once they become disoriented in cloud encounters. Here's the weather map, courtesy Unisys:
As some have said if he were truly wishing to commit suicide he could have crashed the plane into the ground or something, but sometimes people who want to die are actually chicken to do it and would rather someone else, or something else, do it (people who lie down on railroad tracks for instance). Perhaps he thought being suddenly blown out of the sky might be less frightening than a controlled descent unless his suicide comment was more to do with potential martyrdom during the event.
Without more information it's simply impossible to tell whether his was a recon mission designed to smoke out our domestic rules of engagement or just the meanderings of a lovesick nut. His actions at the end could suggest remorse, exhaustion, craziness or satisfaction his mission was complete. All we've got is a photo...
Here's a follow-up from USA Today touting the system as having worked well, and diminishing the threat from small planes:
You just couldn't get enough explosives on it to really be a threat," said Douglas Laird, a former airline security manager who works as a consultant."Fine, if he's not lying. As to small planes not being able to pack much of a punch, of course they can:
Seven months before he crashed an airliner into the World Trade Center, Mohamed Atta was asking crop dusters in Florida an odd question about their planes: How far can they fly?We've come a long way since 9/11. As to Mr. Leon, I keep going back to the commenter at Reihl's place who pointed to the 'grin' on this guy's face being one she's seen on so many other terrorists. It could also be the grin of a guy who just stole an airplane and ruined his life. Don't hold your breath waiting to find out.
Such aircraft normally aren't flown long distances. But this summer, a Middle Eastern man who gave his name as "Sam" hung around crop-dusting firms in Saskatchewan, Canada, for days -- and asked the same question. And sometime before he was arrested in August, suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui did crop-dusting research on his computer.