If the Air Force--and the Obama Administration--were hoping that the "fly-by" kerfuffle would quickly subside, they were sadly mistaken.
More than 24 hours after Air Force One's ill-advised, low-level flight near the Statue of Liberty, New York political leaders (and local residents) remain angry. Despite detailed planning that involved multiple federal agencies, no one bothered to inform local officials or ordinary citizens. The sudden appearance of the familiar Boeing 747, trailed by two fighter jets, set off fears of another 9-11 attack in lower Manhattan.
Making matters worse, "explanations" offered by the White House have been anything but satisfactory. When reports of the fly-by first broke, press secretary Robert Gibbs referred journalists to the Pentagon and the FAA. Confronted with the news that it was the administration approved the photo-op, Gibbs promised to "look into it."
The White House spokesman and his boss, President Obama, also deserve low marks for suggesting that the White House was surprised by the fly-by. True, Mr. Obama may have been unaware that a VC-25 (the USAF designation for the presidential jet) was buzzing around the Big Apple, but plenty of people were.
Air Force One is--arguably--the world's most important aircraft. It plays a central role in the movements of the Commander-in-Chief, and the availability (and location) of those jets are carefully tracked by multiple federal agencies, beyond the White House Military Office.
At the top of that list is the Secret Service. To carry out their comprehensive security operation, the service's presidential detail must be aware where the jets are, and how they would move the POTUS to Air Force One (or a National Airborne Operations Center aircraft) in the event of an emergency.
The Air Force, which operates the presidential airlift fleet, was also aware of the operation. Crews and maintenance personnel are part of the 89th Military Airlift Wing, located at Andrews AFB, Maryland. For this sort of fly-by, the wing commander and his senior staff were certainly "in the know," along with aircrew members and support personnel.
Within the Pentagon, VIP airlift and other special missions fall under the purview of the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General William M. Fraser III. We would imagine that General Fraser was in the loop, along with staff officers who helped coordinate the operation.
The same holds true for Air Combat Command, which "owns" CONUS-based fighter, bomber and surveillance aircraft. Those F-16s flying alongside the VC-25 didn't materialize out of thin air; ACC played a key role in arranging the fighter escort for the 747 over Manhattan, and getting Combat Camera photographers in the backseat of at least one F-16. If the Vipers were assigned to Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve assets, then the photo-op was coordinated through those organizations as well.
And, of course, the entire project required the blessings of the Federal Aviation Administration, which approved the low-level fly-by and cleared the military aircraft into Manhattan airspace. In fact, the FAA even compiled a memo, anticipating "possible public concern" over the photo op. But the agency demanded strict secrecy from local authorities that it notified, including the New York City mayor's office and the NYPD. WCBS-TV reports that the FAA even threatened sanctions against organizations or individuals who divulged plans for the fly-by.
But this chain of incompetence begins at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where the White House Military Office (and its director, Louis Caldera) set the project in motion. So far, Mr. Caldera hasn't resigned, and we'd be surprised if he gets the boot. A well-connected Democratic Party apparatchik, Caldera served as Secretary of the Army during the Clinton years, and he probably has the internal clout to dodge this bullet.
Unfortunately, that doesn't hold true for military staffers who worked on the project. You can expect one (or more) Colonels in the military office or the Pentagon to be sacrificed for the "greater good."
Still, that won't answer the question of why Caldera ordered the photo-op, or the purpose it served. While Air Force One has been photographed against various historic and scenic back-drops over the years, it's unclear why the White House wanted a new "Statue of Liberty" image at this time. Clearly, there are far better uses for $308,000, the amount spent on the photo run over New York.
As for those coveted images, we're guessing they would have been used for the normal purposes--for Air Force recruiting and publicity, and as political trinkets for the White House. Members of the 89th wing at Andrews typically receive a framed picture of Air Force One at the end of their tours, and the White House often provides them to political leaders, staffers and political cronies who fly on the aircraft.
There's nothing particularly novel or sinister about the gesture--and the Obama team certainly didn't invent it. But it does represent a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars and perhaps (in a backhand way), Mr. Caldera has performed a public service. With his botched handling of the photographic mission, he has eliminated that extravagance, once and for all. Future Air Force One fly-bys over the Statue of Liberty will likely be performed on the computer screen, through the magic of PhotoShop.
ADDENDUM: Reporters are demanding the passenger manifest for the New York flight, trying to see if any VIPs were along for the ride. Quite frankly, we'd be surprised if anyone was on-board, other than the flight crew. There's nothing particularly exciting about a bumpy, low-altitude flight, even with the Manhattan skyline out the window. Additionally, the presence of those F-16s, flying formation with the VC-25, made the flight a bit more risky than normal, providing another reason to keep passengers off the jet.
Also, we haven't any credible evidence to support an even more outlandish theory--that the 747 was being used as a platform to photograph an F-16, painted in the markings of the famed 332nd Fighter Group. Hollywood titans George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are currently working on the film, which recounts the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. Rumors suggest that footage of the F-16 would be used in the opening or closing credit sequence of the film.
But that suggestion has a number of problems. The 747 is big enough (and stable enough) to accommodate a number of cameras. But producers (and the military) usually prefer a jet that can provide multiple camera angles--more cheaply and efficiently--an fly in relatively close proximity to the aircraft being photographed. The obvious choice would be a modified business jet, like the ones used to photograph aerial sequences in such films as Top Gun. Additionally, in this era of computer-generated special effects, the desired sequence could be rendered digitally--at a much lower cost.