One of the US president’s official planes and a supersonic fighter jet zoomed past the lower Manhattan skyline in a flash just as the work day was beginning on Monday. Within minutes, startled financial workers streamed out of their offices, fearing a nightmarish replay of Sept. 11, 2001.
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 defense. Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t know about it and he later called it “insensitive” to fly so near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The director of the White House military office, Louis Caldera, took the blame a few hours later. The airliner was a 747 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, US President Barack Obama was furious, a White House official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
An administration official said the purpose of the photo op was to update file photos of the president’s plane near the Lady Liberty.
An Air Force combat photographer took pictures from one of the fighter jets, administration officials said.
The FAA notified the New York Police Department of the flyover, telling them photos of the Air Force One jet would be taken about 450m above the Statue of Liberty on Monday morning.
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 ... Had I known about it, I would have called them right away and asked them not to.”