Aerial Photo Op Recalls 9/11 for Some

A government exercise involving low-flying planes created a scare in New York City Monday morning. The incident caused a brief panic among workers, who said they were not notified in advance.
By Tomoeh Murakami Tse and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

NEW YORK, April 27 -- A plane used as a backup for Air Force One and a fighter-jet escort swooped low in the sky over New York on Monday as part of a government photo op, panicking workers, forcing evacuations and prompting an outcry from lawmakers.

The White House later issued a profuse apology over the incident.

The event was intended to update a stock photo of the presidential plane that is used for distribution to media and others, according to a person familiar with the matter who was spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The photo, featuring the Statue of Liberty, is to replace one of the aircraft flying near Mount Rushmore, the person said.

The flyover -- involving a 747 that is one of two used by the president and an Air Force F-16 fighter jet -- took place near Lower Manhattan's financial district and caused traders, construction workers and others to flee for safety. An Air Force spokeswoman said the "aerial photo mission" was authorized to take place in Lower Manhattan and New Jersey and was to last 30 minutes.

Finger-pointing over the scare began almost immediately, with New York lawmakers expressing outrage that they were taken by surprise by an event long-planned by the federal government. The New York Police Department said in a statement that the flight was authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration but that "local authorities" had been told not to disclose information about it and to direct inquiries to the FAA.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said it was "appalling" that the FAA would plan the photo op "knowing full well that New Yorkers would still have the memory of 9/11 sketched in their minds."

"We cannot let this happen again," he said.

The FAA did not return calls fo comment, and the Air Force referred calls to the White House. But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, when questioned about the matter at his daily afternoon briefing, said he was unaware of the photo mission.

Finally, in the early evening, Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office, who said he approved the mission last week, shouldered the blame.

"I take responsibility for that decision," Caldera said in a statement. "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."

President Obama, who was not on the plane, has told aides he was furious over the handling of the matter, according to a person familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House Military Office requested in a conference call April 3 with the FAA, Defense Department and others that information about the flyover be kept private for security reasons. "The White House Military Office didn't want public dissemination, and the FAA accommodated that," the person said.

A senior official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has a police force of more than 1,600 to protect the area's airports, tunnels, bridges and seaports, said it was not notified, a claim the administration official confirmed.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) said he was "furious" that he was not notified about the flyover. Had he known, he said, he would have tried to stop it.

The administration official said a senior Bloomberg staff member had been notified April 22.

The sight of the planes outside their windows sent some workers out of their buildings. "People started moving down on their own," said an executive who works at a large financial services firm near Ground Zero and who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by his company to speak publicly. "Particularly for people like myself who were here on September 11, it was kind of an uncool thing. Someone should have made a public announcement."

Shear reported from Washington.

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