Chris Taylor on the Air Force One Fly-By

by Joey deVilla on April 28, 2009

Air Force One flyby Photo by istolethetv, found via Chris Taylor.

I am only a casual military buff, and my interest is largely in military aircraft. When it comes to dropping serious military science, my neighbour Chris Taylor is the the go-to guy, and his blog, Taylor & Company, is chock full of good bits about the topic. His most recent blog post may have the best title about the  recent Air Force One incident: 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.

Damn, that’s funny.

Chris also left a great comment to my earlier post about the incident. I thought it was worthy of elevating to a full-on article, so I’ve included it below:

The White House, FAA and Air Force need to be a little more forthcoming.

First of all the FAA didn’t issue a NOTAM for ZNY ARTCC, which would have told any interested civil pilots., whose route might take them nearby, that a 747 variant would be zooming around the Statue of Liberty at 1500 feet. Sometimes presidential flights have their NOTAMs released at the last minute (or in secret cases, not at all). A picture shoot should not rate the same level of secrecy as an actual president-is-aboard flight.

Second, F-16s as a still camera platform? It’s doable, but not when you are trying to maintain formation with a manoeuvring flight lead. The F-16 is a single-seater, after all. They would have to have specifically sent up a two-seat trainer, which would put the combat cameraman in the back.

Which leads to the third problem. Most of the footage we have seen involves the F-16 flying echelon right (or in trail), with the VC-25 as lead. That means most of your pics are going to be from three-quarters behind, which don’t make for the best airplane glamour shots. Especially when your camera guy is in the back and most of his forward perspective is obscured by the guy flying the fighter. Typically you would want a side profile or oblique view from the front (compare existing VC-25 shots here). The F-16 should have been out in front (leading the VC-25) most of the time, or his shots are going to suck.

When civilians do this stuff, say for airline commercials (where you see the 747 roll into a hard turn, and peel off to the left like a fighter jet) they hire a larger, more stable—but still very nimble—camera platform, like a Gulfstream business jet, have it fly in formation with the airliner—typically ahead of it—run through it a half-dozen times, taking the shots they need, and then go home. A NOTAM would be published, that part of the airspace would get closed for a specified period of time, ATC would keep other air traffic well away from it.

Now, since the Statue of Liberty is already part of an existing TFR area, the airspace is already closed. But publishing an additional NOTAM, plus allowing the local authorities (who did know, but were instructed not to publicise it) to get the word out, could have avoided this whole mess.

As for the other points… there’s no doubt good and entirely ordinary explanations for them, but keeping it all under wraps makes the whole thing look much worse than it actually was.

After reading it, I began to wonder why they didn’t do the opposite of keeping it a secret: why not make a big announcement about it and treat it as a mini-air show?

If the response to the air show we have at the Canadian National Exhibition here in Toronto is any indication, it would be a big hit. People, especially in the States, love air shows. If it were me, I’d see if I could get a team like the Blue Angels (they’re Navy – who’s the Air Force equivalent?) to fly in formation behind the big bird.

In fact, a pre-announced Air Force One air show might even garner an extra PR boost from the additional “viral marketing” that would come from people posting their Air Force One photos taken from New York’s many good vantage points on their Facebooks and on Flickr. It’s the sort of social media thing for which the Air Force has shown a considerable amount of savvy.

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