A 380,000 pound, 4-engine airliner will be zipping around the Statue of Liberty at 1500 feet, but you have to keep it a secret

vc25_f16_nycImage: VC-25 and F-16 escort over lower Manhattan yesterday.
From istolethetv‘s Flickr photostream.

….from who?

Jim Peters, an F.A.A. spokesman, said “the photo op was approved and coordinated with everyone.” Notification was made in advance to the mayor’s office, “including its 911 and 311 operation centers,” the New York City Police Department, the New Jersey State Police, the United States Park Police and other agencies, he said.

The Police Department confirmed that it had been notified about the event but said it had been barred from alerting the public. “The flight of a VC-25 aircraft and F-16 fighters this morning was authorized by the F.A.A. for the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty with directives to local authorities not to disclose information about it but to direct any inquiries to the F.A.A. Air Traffic Security Coordinator,” the Police Department said in a statement.

— A. G. Sulzberger AND Matthew L. Wald.  “White House Apologizes for Air Force Flyover“, New York Times [City Room], April 27th, 2009.

Certainly not very secret from the bystanders on the ground.

I’ve been trying, without much success, to find an FAA or DoD NOTAM regarding this event—anyone else have any luck?  It’s typical to keep presidential flights hush-hush and not issue a NOTAM until the last minute, but this wasn’t a presidential flight, we’re told.

(Via Castle Argghhh!)

UPDATE: As BillT asks in the comments at Argghhh!, where were the photographers?  The majority of F-16 Fighting Falcons are single-seaters, unless they specifically chose to fly a two-seat B/D/F-model trainer for this mission.

UPDATE 281902Z APR 2009: The authorities have reportedly cancelled a second VC-25 photo op, over Washington D.C.  That’s a shame.  The lesson you should have learned, fellas, is not that big planes + big cities = oh my G-d, run for your lives, it’s that unusual (but planned) events + no prior warning = what the hell are you thinking?  Next time, just let people know ahead of time.  It’s that simple.

TOO MUCH TIME ON MY HANDS UPDATE: Currently reviewing LiveATC’s recorded traffic from yesterday, to try and isolate the VC-25 chatter to ZNY ARTCC.  It’s a lot less exciting that one might imagine.  A lot of traffic advisories from New York Approach (CAMRN) to the VC-25 (which is using 89th Airlift Wing’s “house” callsign, VENUS, as VENUS 1 HEAVY).

Here is some of the chatter as excerpted by John Croft (Americas Editor for Flightglobal.com).  Keep in mind neither the controller nor the pilots have any idea of the mayhem being generated around the Goldman Sachs Tower, for example:

UPDATE 290400Z APR 2009: Major X, an anonymous F-16 driver, makes some good comments over at Joey deVilla‘s blog, especially regarding the use of the Falcon as a camera platform.  He also asks the readers to note which other units (besides 89AW) are located at Andrews AFB.  If you listen to the LiveATC feed above, you will note that the VC-25 (Venus 1 Heavy) refers to its chase aircraft as Capital 92—which would mean an F-16 from 113FW, also based at Andrews.  That explains how the F-16 was selected as the camera platform.  Other than the execrable decision to try and keep this under wraps from the public, it looks like a very ordinary pilot currency mission gone horribly awry.

The other interesting thing the Major notes:

This whole furor is driving me a little crazy. FWIW, I actually spoke to the F-16 pilot yesterday…we go way back. As far as I know, he was the only F-16 flying chase with the photog in back. He was on a conference call THAT MORNING with about 30 different agencies, including the DHS, FBI, NYPD and others. This photo op has been in the works for THREE months. THREE! The idea that Obama or Bloomberg didn’t know is ludicrous.

I can’t say I’m too surprised that the pols appear to be hanging the military out to dry on this one.  There’s plenty of precedent for that.

One note about callsigns. I think it’s safe to say that this definitely wasn’t some kind of super-secret passenger-carrying flight, where the truth is being obscured so as to prevent a politician from being embarassed.

When the VC-25 is carrying the President, its callsign—as we all know—is Air Force One.  When they are carrying VIPs (Cabinet officers, senators and the like) their callsigns are SAM [for Special Air Mission] 28000 and SAM 29000, depending on the tail code of the aircraft being flown.  When they are carrying relatives of VIPs, the callsign will be Executive [tail code].  And finally, when they are just doing the day-to-day proficiency and currency flights, the front-office callsign will be Venus 1 (for aircraft 28000) and Venus 2 (for aircraft 29000).

Venus, incidentally, is the “house” callsign for 89th Airlift Wing.  Plenty of other aircraft types also use that callsign: the C-20s use Venus 2x, the C-37As use Venus 4x, the (now retired) C-9A used Venus 8x, and the C-32As use Venus 9x.

Finally, because the VC-25’s gross take-off weight is over 255,000 lbs, they will have the “Heavy” suffix appended to the callsigns.  And because the front office that day was using “Venus 1” (as opposed to “SAM 28000”), we can assume there were no VIPs or relatives of VIPs aboard.

UPDATE 051716Z MAY 2009: The folks at Potomac Current and Undertow (a blog from/for/about/to the air traffic controllers at the Potomac TRACON) have published the text of a memo from Mr. James Johnston, head of the National Capital Region Coordination Center, which I will reprint here.

FROM: FAA Air Traffic System Operations Security (AJR-2)

SUBJECT: Flight Notification- New York City -Statue of Liberty Photo Op, Upper New York Bay / Newark Bay on April 27, 2009, 10:00L. (amended 4/23)

The information in this document is considered FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY, and should only be shared with persons with a need to know. Information in this document shall not be released to the public or media.

1. The Department of Defense (DOD), in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), will conduct a flying photo op in the New York City Area on April 27, 2009 involving a transport and fighter aircraft. Below are the details regarding the operation.

• Date: Monday April 27, 2009 (Primary), April 28 or April 30 (weather backup dates)
• Number / Type Aircraft: 1 VC-25 and 2 F-16s. Actual photo op will only have VC25 and 1 F16.
• Callsign: VENUS01
• Departure point: ADW
• Arrival point: ADW
• Flight Plan: Crews will file two separate IFR flight plans:
ADW-JFK: KADW.. PALEO V44 SIE CAMRN4 JFK
Requested altitude FL190B210
EWR-ADW: KEWR..EWR7.BIGGY J75 MXE V378 BAL KADW

• Planned Departure Time: 0930 approximately
• Planned Time On Photo Op Location: 10:00 -10:30L.
• Planned Photo Op Altitude: 1000-1500ft
• Number of Passes: 2, possibly 3

The aircraft will depart ADW via IFR clearance as a three (3) ship formation to Sea Isle (SIE). At SIE one (1) of the fighters will leave the flight and return to ADW IFR via SIE ATR V308 BILIT ADW.

The VC25 and 1 F16 will proceed IFR to CAMRN intersection south of JFK. In the vicinity of CAMRN intersection the aircraft will cancel IFR and proceed VFR with New York TRACON (N90) towards the Verranzano Bridge. N90 will hand the aircraft off to Newark Tower (EWR) for the flight in the Upper NY and Newark Bay. Upon completion of the final pass the aircraft will be treated as a EWR departure and pickup an IFR clearance back to ADW.

The photo op portion of the flight will be VFR in accordance with the specified ground track as per the attached map (Attachment 1). On the northbound flight segments the fighter aircraft will be offset to the east by approximately ½ mile. During the southbound flight segment the fighter will re-position to remain offset to the aircraft within the depicted box.

The operation will be monitored by FAA Air Traffic Security Coordinators (ATSC) at the Domestic Event Network at FAA Headquarters from start to finish. Any questions or issues can be directed to the FAA ATSC at the DEN. The FAA ATSC can be reached at (202) 493-5107.

The Public Affairs posture for this effort is passive. No media or press releases are planned. Please direct all media inquiries to the FAA Air Traffic Security Coordinator at (202) 493-5107. Due to the possibility of public concern regarding DOD aircraft flying at low levels, coordination with Federal, State and Local law enforcement agencies, emergency operations centers and aviation units has been accomplished.

//SIGNED//
JAMES J. JOHNSTON, FAA Air Traffic
AJR-2 System Operations Security
Comm: [redacted]
Cell: [redacted]
James.J.Johnston@faa.gov
James.J.Johnston@dhs.sgov.gov

In the words of that blog’s author, “This is the type of  stupidity that FAA management creates for air traffic controllers at Potomac TRACON everyday.  We’re glad we could share our experiences with the rest of the country.”

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4 Responses
  1. Dave says:

    Taylor –
    Check this out from the WSJ article:
    >>Despite the cost of an Air Force One flight, both White House and Air Force officials said the flyover also served as a routine training mission, allowing the 747’s pilots to log sufficient flight hours.
    “The crew on these aircraft have to maintain their proficiency,” said Gary Strasburg, an Air Force spokesman.
    A White House spokesman said, “They took that opportunity to marry up the two missions to take the photo,” adding, “The president thinks there is nothing wrong with the previous official photo of Air Force One.”<< Guh? What proficiency do the pilots of AF1 need that involves dicking around at 1500 feet near New York? Gosh, I hope they have 3 landings to a full stop in the last 90 days or they can't carry Obama or other passengers!

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    Heh. As you know, there’s a lot of proficiencies to maintain, emergency procedures (engine out, engine fire, cabin depress, emerg descent), tactical procedures (formation, air refueling), et cetera. None that really involve being at 1500 feet over major landmarks, though.
    Probably just a perfect storm of bad coincidences, a couple pilots needed RNAV currency and 89AW decided to update their VC-25 photo stock. Why not slap the two missions together?
    The real mystery is why this was kept hsh-hush from the public. If they had announced it ahead of time, everyone would have been out there with a camera, smiles on their faces, looking to take a photo.

  3. It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up

    The White House will not be releasing the photos garnered from last week’s VC-25 low-level activity around lower Manhattan, according to the New York Post: “We have no plans to release them,” an aide to President Obama told The Post,…

  4. thanks for publish!!!