"Air Force One" Flyover Incident an Embarrassment

There is nothing new about using Air Force One as a promotional tool.


The fallout continues from the "Air Force One incident."

Thousands of New Yorkers fled their offices Monday as word spread that a jumbo jet and an F-16 fighter were buzzing Manhattan at a low altitude. Many feared that it might be a terrorist attack like the one on 9/11.

It turned out to be a public relations gambit in which the Air Force was taking promotional photos of the plane—a 747 designated Air Force One when the president is aboard—over the New York skyline. Government officials particularly wanted images of the plane with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The pictures were to be distributed as souvenirs and given to the news media. President Obama was not aboard the plane at the time.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he wasn't informed about the flyover in advance, although a middle-ranking aide to the mayor knew about the plan and never passed the information along. Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office, who devised the publicity stunt, quickly apologized. And President Obama told reporters, "It was a mistake...and it will not happen again." Spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the White House would conduct a "review" of what happened and that Obama would take "appropriate" action, possibly by disciplining Caldera.

The problem was that, while a number of federal, state, and local officials apparently were notified, the public was left out. And New Yorkers, still jittery about 9/11, were angry about it.

Another concern being raised by the media was the cost of such flights. The Air Force estimated the price tag of the New York photo op at nearly $329,000.

Using Air Force One as a promotional prop for the president is nothing new. White House PR specialists have used the plane frequently to add to the president's mystique over the years. John F. Kennedy's handlers were particularly interested in the stagecraft of the plane, telling local TV stations when it would land and depart in order to generate live TV coverage. The technique worked, and video of Air Force One has been a staple of covering the president ever since.

Harry Truman also realized the PR value of the presidential aircraft. He had his plane, called the "Independence," painted to look like an eagle, complete with beak, eyes, and tail feathers. It would seem gaudy today, but it served Truman's purpose by giving him a publicity boost. No one would mistake the Independence for any other aircraft.

Over the years, Air Force One has been pictured in famous settings before, such as over Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. But the handling of the New York incident, especially the lack of public disclosure, made the latest photo op an embarrassment.