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Airliner, fighter jet throw scare into New Yorkers

Few were notified of planned flyover near Manhattan

By Ula Ilnytzky and Sara Kugler
Associated Press / April 28, 2009
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NEW YORK - An airliner and supersonic fighter jet zoomed past the lower Manhattan skyline in a flash just as the workday was beginning yesterday. 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 plane 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 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. One of the planes 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. "It's clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused."

Still, federal officials provided few details and wouldn't say why the public and area building security managers weren't notified. They also wouldn't address why someone thought it was a wise decision to send two jets into New York City, all for a few photos with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop.

An administration official said the purpose of the photo op was to update file photos of the president's plane near the statue.

This official said the White House military office told the Federal Aviation Administration that it periodically updates 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.

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.

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. yesterday.

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