April 28, 2009 in Nation/World

Air Force One flyover near ground zero causes panic in New York

Military official says mission was photo op
Ula Ilnytzky And Sara Kugler Associated Press
 

NEW YORK – One of the president’s official planes and a supersonic fighter jet zoomed past the lower Manhattan skyline in a flash just as the workday was beginning Monday. Within minutes, startled financial workers streamed out of their offices, fearing a nightmarish replay of Sept. 11.

For a half-hour, the Boeing 747 and F-16 jet circled the Statue of Liberty and the lower Manhattan skyline near the World Trade Center site. Offices evacuated. Dispatchers were inundated with calls. Witnesses thought the planes were flying dangerously low.

But the flyover was nothing but a photo op, apparently one of a series of flights to get pictures of the president’s airliner in front of national landmarks.

It was carried out by the Defense Department with little warning, infuriating New York officials and putting the White House on the defensive. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t know about it, and he later called it “insensitive” to fly so near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The director of the White House military office, Louis Caldera, took the blame a few hours later. The airliner was a 747 that is called Air Force One when used by the president.

“Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision,” Caldera said. “While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it’s clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused.”

When told of the flight, President Barack Obama was furious, a White House official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Still, federal officials provided few details and wouldn’t say why the public and area building security managers weren’t notified.

An administration official said the purpose of the photo op was to update file photos of the president’s plane near Lady Liberty.

This official said the White House military office told the Federal Aviation Administration that it was updating file photos of Air Force One near national landmarks, such as the statue in the New York harbor and the Grand Canyon. The official requested anonymity to give more details than the official White House announcement.

An Air Force combat photographer took pictures from one of the fighter jets, administration officials said.

The photo op was combined with a training exercise to save money, according to another administration official who also spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly.

The FAA notified the New York Police Department of the flyover, telling them photos of the Air Force One jet would be taken about 1,500 feet above the Statue of Liberty around 10 a.m. Monday. It had a classified footnote that said “information in this document shall not be released to the public or the media.”

“Why the Defense Department wanted to do a photo op right around the site of the World Trade Center catastrophe defies the imagination,” Bloomberg said. “Poor judgment would be a nice way to phrase it.”

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said that typically a flight like this would be publicized to avoid causing a panic, but they were under orders not to publicize this case.

Workers in lower Manhattan were stunned by what they saw.

John Leitner, a floor trader at the New York Mercantile Exchange Building, said about 1,000 people “went into a total panic” and ran out of the building around 10 a.m. after seeing the planes whiz nearby.

“We were informed after we cleared out of there,” Leitner said. “I kind of think heads should roll a little bit on that.”

Employees of the Wall Street Journal also left their desks to see what was going on.

Kathleen Seagriff, a staff assistant, said workers heard the roar of the engines and then saw the planes from their windows.

“They went down the Hudson, turned around and came back by the building,” she said. “It was a scary scene, especially for those of us who were there on 9/11.”

© Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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