White House apologizes for Manhattan flyover
BY ROCCO PARASCANDOLA AND JENNIFER MALONEY
April 28, 2009
Call it a photo flop.
The White House late Monday apologized for a photo-op and military training exercise involving two low-flying aircraft - a presidential plane and an F-16 fighter jet just above downtown Manhattan that sparked fears and panic of another Sept. 11.
The New York Police Department knew. The 911 dispatchers knew. And Mayor Mike Bloomberg's citywide event coordination and management director, Marc Mugnos, knew. In fact, the FAA and several other public agencies knew.
Administration officials said planning started in mid-March and told the FAA to make the air space available.
But the mayor abruptly found out about Monday morning's fighter jet photo-op and military training mission via complaints sent to his BlackBerry, as thousands of New Yorkers fled several lower Manhattan buildings and made frantic phone calls.
Because Mugnos didn't tell the mayor about the planned flyover, he has been reprimanded and a disciplinary letter has been placed in his file, a Bloomberg spokesman said Monday.
An Obama administration official said the photo-op was intended to update a photo of Air Force One with the Statue of Liberty. An administration official last night said "the president was furious when he heard about the flight."
Bloomberg later said had he known about the flyover, he would have moved to stop it. Bloomberg also blasted the White House for signing off on a publicity stunt it should have known would backfire.
"I'm annoyed - furious is a better word," Bloomberg said. "Why . . . the Defense Department wanted to do a photo-op right around the site of the World Trade Center catastrophe defies imagination."
By late Monday, the White House had apologized. "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," said Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office. "I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused."
The exercise seemed well-intentioned enough: an F-16 fighter jet, tailing a presidential Boeing 747, known in the military as a VC-25 aircraft and used by President Barack Obama, would race through the skies over lower Manhattan, allowing Air Force photographers to take pictures with the Statue of Liberty in the background.
To save money, it was done in coordination with a military training exercise, said a White House official.
But many New Yorkers, completely unaware, reacted as if terrorists were about to strike. People in several buildings evacuated, hundreds running down dozens of flights of stairs. Vehicular traffic appeared to slow more than usual. And there was even a dip in the markets just past 10 a.m., though it wasn't clear if the flyover was responsible.
The NYPD said witnesses put the height of the planes at no more than 500 feet. That's substantially less than the 1,000 to 1,500 feet the planes were supposed to fly, according to a classified letter sent by the Federal Aviation Administration to a number of agencies last Friday.
The city often releases information when it is planning to conduct a drill related to terrorism. In this case, however, the FAA said revealing news of the flyover would break federal law regarding classified information, according to Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, the NYPD's top spokesman.
That left New Yorkers on their own to figure out what was happening. "We thought we were under attack again," said Laorie Crystal, 50, of Battery Park City, walking her dog at the time. "It was very scary."
Meanwhile, both Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Peter King said the federal government needs to be aware of the Sept. 11 spectrum through which New Yorkers live.
"To not realize that people would see this stunt in broad daylight and think of 9/11 defies logic and shows the FAA is completely asleep at the switch," Schumer said.
Marlene Naanes and Daniel Edward Rosen and staff writers Tom Brune, Martin C. Evans and Michael Frazier contributed to this story.
Copyright © 2009, Newsday Inc.