Air Force One Flyover: A Publicity Stunt Gone Wrong

Obama said the flyover was a mistake and the staffer responsible resigned.


It happened on April 27, when many New Yorkers were upset and frightened as an Air Force jumbo jet flew over Manhattan, accompanied by an F-16 fighter. Some buildings were evacuated because people feared it was another terrorist attack like the ones on 9/11.

Government officials later explained that it was a photo shoot to update publicity pictures of the 747, which is called Air Force One when the president is aboard. The goal was to capture images of the plane flying over the Statue of Liberty and other Gotham landmarks. But New Yorkers expressed outrage that they weren't notified of the publicity stunt in advance. And others were angered at the cost of the gambit, estimated by the government at $329,000, mostly for the fuel and other operating costs of the aircraft. President Obama criticized the photo op, calling it "a mistake" that won't happen again. Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office, accepted responsibility for the flyover and resigned.

Last week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration wouldn't release any photos from the event, but this drew flak because the White House seemed to be flouting its own much-ballyhooed goals of openness and candor. Then Gibbs said the administration would soon release a photo and a report on what happened and why, guaranteeing that the episode will get more publicity.

The fact is that, even though the flyover went awry, Air Force One has been part of presidential stagecraft for many years. As recounted in my book Air Force One, Franklin Roosevelt was the first commander in chief to fly when he crossed the Atlantic in 1943 to meet Winston Churchill in Casablanca, Morocco, to discuss the upcoming invasion of Europe. Roosevelt kept that trip secret because of concerns about Nazi attacks and sabotage. He flew on an ungainly-looking aircraft known as a "flying boat," which could take off and land in water.

It was Harry Truman, after succeeding Roosevelt in 1945, who started the tradition of making the presidential aircraft a public-relations prop. He nicknamed his plane "Independence," from his hometown in Missouri and the way it made him feel when he was aboard, and he had it painted to look like an eagle, complete with a beak, eyes, and tail feathers. When the plane arrived somewhere, everyone knew Harry Truman was aboard.

John F. Kennedy made the next advance in such stagecraft when he had his wife, Jacqueline, redesign the interior of the 707 jet he was using. She installed fine china and artwork. She also came up with the blue-and-white color scheme still used on the plane today. And Kennedy aides would let local reporters know exactly when Air Force One would arrive at their local airports so they could cover it. That drew publicity, and the plane's landings and departures are still notable events today.

For many years, presidents have used the aircraft in a more personal way. They frequently give rides to members of Congress and governors, impress them with tours, and allow them to be photographed getting off the glamorous plane with the commander in chief. Staffers are allowed to make an occasional call to mothers, fathers, spouses, and other family members from 35,000 feet as a special perk. More recently, presidents have taken reporters on walk-throughs to show off the plane's impressive features. One custom that has gone by the wayside as too extravagant, however, is the liberal giveaway tradition. At one time, visitors received decks of playing cards, stationery, even packages of candy bearing an Air Force One emblem. No more.

Over the years, Air Force One has become the most recognizable aircraft in the world. There was a movie made about it in 1997, starring Harrison Ford as the president and titled, of course, Air Force One. The aircraft is now a symbol of America's technological prowess and the global reach of the American presidency.

From time to time, the government has attempted to update its publicity photos, mostly by having the plane pictured over recognizable but sparsely populated sites such as Mount Rushmore and ocean scenes. No one made a fuss over these gambits. Flying over New York, however, with its millions of residents and sensitivities over 9/11, was an entirely different story. The $329,000 expense, against the backdrop of a recession and vast government deficits, didn't help matters, either.