The carefully choreographed flight of the presidential aircraft, accompanied by a single Air Force F-16, set off a panic on both sides of New York Harbor, as thousands of workers -- still haunted by the memories of 9/11 -- fled their high-rise office buildings at the unexpected sight of the huge, low-flying passenger jet over the Hudson River. Trailed closely by a military fighter, the plane could be seen turning tightly over the Statue of Liberty for what was later described as a "photo op."
AP Photo/Jason McLaneIn this image, taken with a cell phone by Jason McLane, the primary presidential aircraft, a Boeing 747 known as Air Force One when the president is aboard, flies low over New York Harbor, followed by an F-16 chase plane during a federal government photo op.
An Obama administration official told the Associated Press late today the flyover was done because the White House Military Office wanted to update its file photo of the president's plane near the Statue of Liberty.
The official said the military office told the Federal Aviation Administration it periodically updates file photos of Air Force One near national landmarks, like the statute in New York harbor and the Grand Canyon.
The call sign of the special flight was "Venus 1."
The president was not on board the signature blue-and-white jet, which many on the ground never associated with the iconic Boeing 747 called Air Force One when he flies it.
An FAA spokesman said the fly-over "was approved and coordinated with everyone," with notifications made to the New York City Police Department, the mayor's office, the New Jersey State Police, and other agencies.
However, a confidential security memo that went out last week by the FAA's Air Traffic System Operations Security office -- while acknowledging "the possibility of public concern regarding Department of Defense aircraft flying at low levels," instructed that all information about the flight be kept confidential, and not to be released to the public or media.
"The information in this document is considered FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY, and should only be shared with persons with a need to know," the memo declared.
Louis Caldera, Director of the White House Military Office, expressed regret for the flight.
"Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision," he said in a statement released by the White House. "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."
I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused."
Staten Island Advance/Bill LyonsScores of office workers in Lower Manhattan leave their buildings after being evacuated following an incident involving a low flying government airplane.
Both jets left Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland at about 9:30 a.m., where the specially fitted 747s -- are maintained by the Presidential Airlift Group. The aircraft were to make at least two, and possibly three fly-by passes over the Statue of Liberty, and then return to Andrews.
A Department of Transportation official said the FAA was told it was "a classified operation" and not to be publicly divulged.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, sharply criticized the flight, saying the photo-op showed "poor judgment" and was insensitive. The planes appeared to follow the same flight path as the hijacked airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
A spokesman for Gov. Jon Corzine said it was a federal matter and had no comment.
Office workers in Jersey City's financial district said the eerie sight of the two planes rekindled nerves still raw from the memories of Ground Zero, and immediately set off panic. One witness said it was not immediately clear the presidential plane was anything more than a wayward civilian 747, and thought the fighter jet that accompanied it looked less like an escort and than a flight of pursuit.
Outside the Grove Street PATH station in Jersey City, about three dozen nervous office workers stood outside, some looking up at the blue sky. Others could be seen on the rooftops of nearby residential buildings, also gazing upward. One woman talked on her cell phone, assuring the person on the other end of the line she was all right. When she hung up, she declared, "I'm not going back in there," then hustled away.
Marc Vitoulis, who escaped his office in the North Tower on the day of the World Trade Center attacks, said he grew uneasy when he started hearing the loud drone of the two aircraft around 10 a.m.
"People said, 'Get out.' They were just saying, 'Get the heck out,'" said Vitoulis, an engineer at Barclays Capital on Hudson Street in Jersey City. Vitoulis said he grabbed his bag, rushed down eight flights of stairs and exited the building, where he joined hundreds of other people on the promenade.
When he found out later the flyby was part of a photo shoot, Vitoulis said he was angry.
"The insanity of not telling the people about what was happening before a flyby -- just a simple warning --who are the boneheads?" he asked.
Several doors down, at the offices of Lord Abbett, a mutual fund, Scott McNeil was just relieved to be alive. McNeil said he panicked as soon as he heard on the radio that there was plane circling over the Hudson. He grabbed his radio and Blackberry --leaving his laptop at his desk --and ran for the stairwell.
"I looked out the window, and I was out instantly," said McNeil, 35, of Long Hill Township. "I didn't waste any time whatsoever."
Carol Pancaldo, 40, who from her 28th floor office had watched the World Trade towers tumble nearly eight years ago, said she just saw the tail of a plane and ran for the stairwell.
"You're thinking," Oh God, don't crash into my building," said Pancaldo, from Elmwood Park, an analyst for Kuehne & Nagel, also in Jersey City.
The walk down the 28 flights of stairs with about 150 of her colleagues seemed to take "forever," Pancaldo said, because nobody knew what was happening outside.
She expressed outrage when she learned of the planes were there for a photo shoot.
"Really, though. After 9/11?" she said.
Staff writers Alexi Friedman and Brian Whitley contributed to this report.