White House will probe presidential plane PR stunt
But the origins of the government public relations stunt that went awry remained an engrossing mystery — and a potential political problem for Obama. The White House military office approved the photo-op, which cost $35,000 in fuel alone for the plane and two jet fighter escorts.
"I think this is one of those rare cases where we can all agree it was a mistake," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said of Monday's "unfortunate" flight low over the Hudson River that for many on the ground evoked chilling memories of 9/11.
The sight of the huge passenger jet and an F-16 fighter plane whizzing past the Statue of Liberty and the lower Manhattan financial district sent panicked office workers streaming into the streets.
"It was a mistake, as was stated ... and it will not happen again," Obama said.
White House officials did not say why new photos were needed of the plane that is sometimes used as Air Force One — Obama wasn't aboard the flight — or who the presumed audience of the planned photographs were.
Air Force officials began to provide basic information Tuesday about the cost of the flights, but did not disclose how long the public has paid for similar photo op flights.
And public officials from the White House to New York still had not explained why they acceded to a plan that informed several dozen officials about the impending flight but kept the public in the dark.
"I think we've all learned something from it and now it's time to make sure our procedures are better and to get on with other things," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "It does seem like it was a waste of money, but that's up to the federal government."
Air Force officials said Tuesday the cost of the three-hour trip from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and back was $328,835 for the flight of the Boeing VC-25 presidential jet and the two accompanying F-16 fighters flown by D.C. Air National Guard pilots. The large jet — a Boeing 747 — carried only military personnel, the White House said.
Roughly $35,000 of the total flight cost was fuel for the VC-25 and F-16s. Other expenses that are factored into hourly flight costs include fuel for ground support equipment, spare parts and other maintenance items needed to keep the aircraft ready. Overall, the cost per flying hour for the VC-25 is $100,219, according to the Air Force. The F-16s cost just under $8,000 an hour to operate.
The Air Force said the photo op flight was run as a regular training mission, so that the costs of the aircraft were considered training costs and were handled under the operations and maintenance budget of the 89th Airlift Wing.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that there would be an inquiry into how the decision was made to make the flight. He made no move to defend the midlevel White House civilian who had accepted blame for it on Monday.
"The president will look at that review and take any appropriate steps after that," Gibbs said. The inquiry would be led by Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, Gibbs said.
White House officials said Obama was fuming mad and thinks Air Force One didn't need a new publicity photo anyway.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates "did not know in advance about this flying photo op," Morrell said. "Once he found out, suffice it to say he was surprised and not very pleased."
The presidential air fleet answers to the White House military office, whose director, Louis Caldera, issued a mea culpa on Monday.
"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," Caldera's statement said. "I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused."
For a half-hour, the Boeing 747 and one of the F-16s circled the Statue of Liberty and the financial district near the World Trade Center site. Offices emptied. Dispatchers were inundated with calls. Witnesses thought the planes were flying dangerously low.
A White House official has said the New York City mayor's office and other New York and New Jersey police agencies were told about the Boeing 747's flight. The official said the FAA, at the military's request, told local agencies that the information was classified and asked them not to publicize it.
Bloomberg initially lambasted the government for failing to notify him, then criticized one of his own aides after learning that the aide had not relayed notification that the flight was coming.
New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine said Tuesday he also received no warning ahead of time that the back-up Air Force One jet and military fighters would be flying low around the Statute of Liberty.
Corzine said he had yet to find a New Jersey official who was told in advance about the Monday morning fly-over.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the Obama administration should have been more careful about alerting New Yorkers to the photo-op.
"There should have been better communication," Levin said Tuesday. "They've expressed their regrets for not having a better communications line to New York, and I think New York people should have known about it."
Associated Press writers Richard Lardner, Philip Elliott and Lara Jakes in Washington, Sara Kugler in New York and Beth DeFalco in New Jersey contributed to this report.
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