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.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Taylor April 28, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Thanks for the link, and the reprint.

There was a similar photo op in Washington a few years ago, involving much smaller craft (I believe it was a VC-20), but it was also flying inside the Washington TFR with a couple escorts. The difference is that it was well-publicised in the press beforehand and no one freaked out.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say that it sounds like somebody (not Obama, maybe a junior relative of a Cabinet secretary) were aboard, necessitating the elevated security. They just took the “photo opportunity” as a chance for to ride-along on a regular VC-25 + escort training mission. A convenient sightseeing trip.

But the simplest explanation is that no one in the White House, FAA and Air Force realised that New York City would lose its mind over something like that. There are probably a lot of NYC dwellers who are walking wounded, having a sort of PTSD where planes being in unusual places at unusual times = TERROR FROM THE SKIES! And I kind of understand that.

About eleven years ago my former house got broken into (while I was asleep upstairs), and lemme tell you, nothing makes an impression on you like waking up to find burly guys tearing your room apart, not realising that you are still there. For a long time afterward, every little sound in the wee hours of the night was a harbinger of burglary. I don’t worry about it now, but I know it can take a while to come off that level of anxiety.

I understand they have cancelled a similar VC-25 flight around Washington, which is too bad. It’s not the plane which is the scary factor, it’s not having any prior information about what it’s doing and why.

Joe B. April 28, 2009 at 10:13 pm

The Air Force equivalent of the Blue Angels are the Thunderbirds. They fly F-16s.

Blacque Jacques Shellacque April 28, 2009 at 10:22 pm

(they’re Navy – who’s the Air Force equivalent?)

That would be the Thunderbirds.

Bryan Frymire April 28, 2009 at 10:28 pm

The Air Force acrobatic flying team is the “Thunderbirds”.

dorkafork April 28, 2009 at 10:42 pm

And if you were to announce that President would not be on board, as he apparently wasn’t for the recent flyby, you’d have a whole lot fewer worries about security, wouldn’t you? What idiot is going to try and shoot down that plane when the President’s not on board?

I keep finding new reasons to slap my forehead over this idiocy. Forget “Planegate”, let’s call this “Air Farce One”.

RM3 frisker FTN April 28, 2009 at 10:57 pm

Hollywood Payback?

“Just One Minute” blog commentator “Mustang0302″ connects some dots:
(1) an Alabama Air National Guard “Red Tail” F-16 was an escort
(2) the Tuskegee Airmen were known as the “Red Tail Angels”
(3) the “Red Tails” Hollywood film about the Tuskegee Airmen is due out this summer

“Mustang0302″ speculates this was a Hollywood inspired photo-shoot, with living descendants of the Tuskegee Airmen onboard AF1, escorted by the Air Force’s organizational descendants of the Tuskegee Airmen, flying over NYC (where that yicky inconvenient 9/11 Islamo-Fascist homophobic thingy happened) to gather powerful, beautiful imagery of these aircraft to be played during closing credits, accompanied by a stirring soundtrack.

The Cat Herder April 28, 2009 at 11:23 pm

“I’d see if I could get a team like the Blue Angels (they’re Navy – who’s the Air Force equivalent?)”

I believe you’re thinking of the Thunderbirds.

Jem April 28, 2009 at 11:30 pm

The current descendant organization of the Tuskegee Airmen is in Iraq (it’s the Expeditionary Wing with responsibility for most of the Air Force personnel stationed there). They have a variety of aircraft types and are not painted up as “Red Tails”.

Chris Taylor April 28, 2009 at 11:51 pm

From what I could tell of the LiveATC audio, the VC-25 (Venus 1 Heavy) identified that its F-16 escort would remain with it in the Liberty TFR and then revert to its own flight plan and callsign (Capital 92). Capital is the “house” callsign of 113th Fighter Wing (DC ANG), out of Andrews AFB. They do fly the F-16, but don’t typically sport an all-red tail. My guess is that that particular bird was their air demo bird, kitted up to look pretty for the summer air show circuit.

Flight-ER-Doc April 29, 2009 at 12:48 am

There are 2-seat F16 variants: The F-16B and -D.

The USAF Aerial Demonstration Team (The Thunderbirds) flies the 2 seat models, so they can give rides to the media. The 2-seat model is also used for flight training. It doesn’t surprise me that the Capital ANG wing has the 2-seat models (at least in part), so that they can give rides to the hill people.

Craig April 29, 2009 at 2:13 am

I really doubt that the F-16 was the camera plane, for all the reasons you mention. If we ever get to see the photos I predict they will have been taken from some vantage point on the ground which put the aircraft and Lady Liberty together nicely in the frame.

Great point about the missing NOTAM.

beb April 29, 2009 at 5:04 am

Maybe Obama wanted to demonstrate to the Taliban, Iran, Syria, Chavez etc. that we are so sorry for our wicked ways of the past that we are willing to provide them with a cheap laugh?

Maybe their planning a fake flooding of New Orleans next? That’s going to be a laugh riot in Tehran.

fsxmissionguy April 29, 2009 at 6:39 am

“… why not make a big announcement about it and treat it as a mini-air show?”

Then what happens if, God forbid, a bird strike takes out the engines and Air Force One is forced to crash land into the Hudson River.

Nah, that could never happen?

Right?

crammy April 29, 2009 at 8:40 am

someone needs to FOIA all the photos from the fighter jet right away.

then, zoom in on them to see if you can make out the panicked people running away….

MrJimm April 29, 2009 at 9:29 am

Nah – the SIMPLEST explanation is the White House was paying back a big bunch of fat-cat campaign donors by giving them a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, and the “photo-0p” is either (1) each of them being able to shoot the Statue of Liberty close up from the air, or (2) a ground level cameraman taking souvenir photos for the fat-cats. Why else all the secrecy??

Nice to know my hard-earned tax dollars are being used for political purposes. Think they’ll release the passenger list? Certainly not if they’re not asked to, and the White House Press Corps isn’t likely to, either.

GmachGforce November 15, 2009 at 2:26 pm

The airplane seen is the equivalent of Airforce 1, there are 5 of these advanced aircraft and only 1 in the air at any one time, they are a completely different boeing aircraft design and specially modified.
If the US admin or joint cheifs, president etc get “taken out” the intire US command and its current empire can still exist no matter where on this planet from anyone of these aircraft. Its the ultimate paranoia. Need more info check out Aaron Russo!

don d April 10, 2010 at 2:53 pm

I was curious with the recent crash of Polands Airforce 1 …. what provisions does our AirForce 1 have in the event of in air emergency where AirForce 1 is about to crash … is there an escape hatch for Mr Pres ???

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