It was supposed to be a photo op that captured images of an Air Force One plane with a majestic Statue of Liberty in the background. Instead, it turned into a public relations nightmare that led to recriminations from the president and mayor and prompted thousands other to ask, "What were they thinking?"
Just before the workday began on Monday, an airliner and supersonic fighter jet zoomed past the lower Manhattan skyline. 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 Financial District 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. "While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it’s clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused."
When told of the flight, President Barack Obama was furious, a White House official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
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 Lady Liberty.
This official said the White House military office told the Federal Aviation Administration that it was updating file photos of Air Force One near national landmarks. The official requested anonymity to give more details than the official White House announcement.
An Air Force combat photographer took pictures from one of the fighter jets, administration officials said.
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 to speak publicly about the behind-the-scenes discussions about the flight.
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. Monday. It had a classified footnote that said, "Information in this document shall not be released to the public or the media."
"Why the Defense Department wanted to do a photo op right around the site of the World Trade Center catastrophe defies the imagination," Bloomberg said. "Poor judgment would be a nice way to phrase it. … Had I known about it, I would have called them right away and asked them not to."
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. They regularly get requests for flyovers, but without secrecy restrictions.
The FAA also alerted an official in the mayor’s office, but he didn’t tell Bloomberg, who said he first learned about it when his "BlackBerry went off crazy with people complaining about it."
The Bloomberg official who was notified was Marc Mugnos, director of operations for the Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management. Mugnos didn’t immediately respond to questions about why he didn’t tell the mayor; Bloomberg’s spokesman Stu Loeser issued a statement saying: "He has been reprimanded and a disciplinary letter will be placed in his file."
Workers in lower Manhattan were stunned by what they saw.
John Leitner, a floor trader at the New York Mercantile Exchange Building, said about 1,000 people "went into a total panic" and ran out of the building around 10 a.m. after seeing the planes whiz by.
"We were informed after we cleared out of there," Leitner said. "I kind of think heads should roll a little bit on that."
Employees of the Wall Street Journal also left their desks to see what was going on.
Kathleen Seagriff, a staff assistant, said workers heard the roar of the engines and then saw the planes from their windows.
"They went down the Hudson, turned around and came back by the building," she said. "It was a scary scene, especially for those of us who were there on 9/11."
Air Force spokesman Vince King said the "photo mission" involved one of two VC-25 aircraft. The aircraft is part of the Presidential Airlift Wing, based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
The F-16 jet that flew alongside came from the D.C. National Guard’s 113th fighter wing.
"This was a photo shoot. There was no need for surprise," Sen. Charles Schumer said. "There was no need to scare thousands of New Yorkers who still have the vivid memory of 9/11."
Associated Press writers Sara Kugler and Colleen Long in New York and Joan Lowy, Michael J. Sniffen, Phil Elliott and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.