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Stomping in My Air Force Ones

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April 28, 2009

Jet Flyover Frightens New Yorkers


It was supposed to be a photo opportunity, a showcase of Air Force One alongside the sweep of New York City skyline.


But as the low-flying Boeing 747 speeded in the shadows of skyscrapers, trailed by two fighter jets, the sight instead awakened barely dormant fears of a terrorist attack, causing a momentary panic that sent workers pouring out of buildings on both sides of the Hudson River.


“I thought there was some kind of an attack,” said Paul Nadler, who sprinted down more than 20 flights of stairs after watching the plane from his office in Jersey City shortly after 10 a.m. “We ran like hell.”


In fact, the blue and white plane with “The United States of America” emblazoned on its side was one of two regularly used by the president. It was soaring above Lower Manhattan, Staten Island and Jersey City so government photographers could take pictures near the Statue of Liberty for publicity purposes.


Aides to President Obama, who was not on board, said he was incensed when he learned of the event Monday afternoon. The White House later issued a formal apology.


Witnesses described the engine roar as the planes swooped by office towers close enough to rattle the windows and prompt evacuations at scores of buildings. Some sobbed as they made their way to the street.


“As soon as someone saw how close it got to the buildings, people literally ran out,” said Carlina Rivera, 25, who works at an educational services company on the 22nd floor of 1 Liberty Plaza, adjacent to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. “Probably about 80 percent of my office left within two minutes of seeing how close it got to our building.”


Under federal regulations, in urban areas, airplanes must fly at least 1,000 feet above obstructions like buildings and bridges, and jetliner flights over Manhattan are typically at 8,000 feet or more. And planes do not typically approach local airports by flying low over the harbor.


As the fright wore off, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and other local leaders questioned why the Federal Aviation Administration had ordered local officials, including the New York Police Department, not to alert the public in advance.


An F.A.A. memo last week said information about the exercise “should only be shared with persons with a need to know” and “shall not be released to the public or the media.”


The breakdown of communication went deeper. Mr. Bloomberg said he first learned of the exercise when his BlackBerry started buzzing with messages from people asking if he knew what was going on.


“First thing is, I’m annoyed — furious is a better word — that I wasn’t told,” Mr. Bloomberg said.


“Why the Defense Department wanted to do a photo-op right around the site of the World Trade Center catastrophe defies imagination,” he said. “Had I known about it, I would have called them right away and asked them not to. It is the federal government, and they can do in the end what they please, but I would have tried to stop it.”


He said that the Police Department and an official in his administration — he did not say who — had not advised him of the exercise.


White House and City Hall officials later said the notice had gone to the director of the city’s event coordination and management office, which handles permits for events like block parties, street fairs and parades. The director, Marc Mugnos, was formally reprimanded for failing to notify his superiors, said a senior city official, who was given anonymity because this was a personnel matter.


As the uproar reached Washington, dozens of officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the Department of Transportation rushed to find out who had authorized the flyover.


The White House did not issue a statement, or a formal apology, for more than six hours. At first, the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, dismissed questions, saying: “You might be surprised to know I don’t know of every movement of Air Force One or what happens to it.”


Later, aides told reporters that President Obama was furious about the flyover when it was brought to his attention. The White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, conveyed the president’s anger in a meeting with the director of the White House Military Office, Louis Caldera, who issued the apology.


“Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision,” Mr. 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.”


Neither the White House nor the F.A.A. explained why the mission was deemed a secret, even though officials conceded the primary purpose was picture taking. Other images of the plane, taken at picturesque sites like Mount Rushmore, are sold as souvenirs and used in promotional materials. Officials at the Department of Transportation and at the Pentagon each denied responsibility for the secrecy.


The lack of warning meant that Notify NYC, a pilot emergency service intended to quickly alert New Yorkers who sign up, did not send out text messages and e-mail messages explaining the flyover until well after the exercise had ended.




"Get off my plane!"

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