Viewers of President Obama's prime-time press conference might have noticed a significant omission. During a hour of give-and-take with the press, there wasn't a single question about Monday's fly-by debacle in New York.
Never mind that lots of New Yorkers are still ticked. Or, that many questions about the airborne photo op remain unanswered. The White House has appointed a deputy chief of staff to look into the matter and his report will (most likely) be released on a Friday afternoon, six months from now. That's the cue for the MSM to drop the matter and let Louis Caldera hang onto his job. Not surprisingly, Mr. Obama's friends in the press corps are only too happy to comply.
But the fly-by scandal may not die as quickly as Mr. Obama--or the media--would like. A little digging shows the "training mission" could be a bit more complex than the White House will admit.
For starters, Air Force sources have confirmed that the F-16s that escorted the VC-25 over Manhattan are assigned to the Alabama Air National Guard, not the D.C. Guard as the AP (and other media outlets) originally reported. The Alabama guard has painted some of its Vipers in a distinctive "red tail" paint scheme, honoring the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. One of the fighters observed over Manhattan had the same markings.
Why does that matter? The distance from Dannelly Field in Montgomery (where the F-16s are based) is roughly 750 miles from New York City. According to the Pentagon, the fighters logged just under four hours of flight time during their mission. During that time, they burned as much as 20,000 pounds of fuel, based on an optimal cruise speed and a configuration that included two external tanks.
With "two bags of gas," an F-16 has a maximum fuel capacity of 11,900 pounds. Subtract the "divert minimum" that pilots must maintain for safety (typically 1,500 pounds), and the amount of on-board fuel drops to just over 10,000 pounds. So, the F-16s had to take on extra gas somewhere between Montgomery and the Big Apple.
In other words, there was at least one in-flight refueling as a part of the mission--and possibly two--requiring at least one tanker aircraft. So, factor in the added expense of a KC-135 or KC-10 and its crew. At the beginning of this decade, the cost of each Stratotanker flying hour was pegged at more than $10,000. Operating a KC-10 is even more expensive, just over $13,000 an hour. Multiply that cost by three to five hours, the typical length of a tanker sortie.
That may not seem like much, considering the total bill for the photo-op was at least $300,000. But it also shows a level of planning (and support) that the White House hasn't discussed. Obviously, in-flight refueling is a routine part of USAF operations. But adding tankers to the equation expands the coordination process, and increases the overall cost of the photo op.
How much was actually spent on the New York fly-by? We still don't know--just as we don't know why it was suddenly necessary to update public relations photographs for Air Force One. Will the forthcoming White House report discuss those issues? Don't bet on it.