On Monday morning, one of the 747s used to ferry around the president of the U.S. was dispatched to the Statue of Liberty, escorted by fighter jets. Assignment: Get some fresh glamour shots of the plane.
The Air Force said the flight needed to remain confidential. So while New York police knew about it, as did at least one person in the mayor's office, regular New Yorkers remained in the dark.
As a result, to onlookers Monday all across downtown Manhattan -- where the World Trade Center once stood -- the photo shoot looked like a terrorist attack. People watched in horror as a massive aircraft, trailed closely by F-16 fighters, banked and roared low over the city, in a frightening echo of the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Fearing the worst, thousands of people streamed out of the skyscrapers and into the streets. Some buildings ordered evacuations.
"Oh God, it was mayhem in here, just mayhem," says Rubin Shimon, manager of Styling Haircutters, a barber shop near Ground Zero, where many people took shelter to call loved ones on their cellphones.
It was all over in a half-hour or so. Then the finger-pointing began.
"I'm annoyed -- furious is a better word -- that I wasn't told," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a news conference. He'd been scheduled to talk about a swine-flu outbreak at a Queens school, but also sounded off at the federal government for its "badly conceived" flyover plan.
Low-Flying Plane Causes Scare in Manhattan
A low-flying airplane escorted by military jets sent worried workers fleeing offices in the New York City area. The FAA said it was a "photo op" conducted by a unit of the Air Force.
He chastised his own office for its role in keeping the flyover secret. On Thursday night, city officials say, a junior mayoral aide had been alerted to the flyover by the FAA, which requested that it be kept secret. Someone in City Hall alerted New York Police, but no public announcement was made.
Marc Mugnos was reprimanded for not apprising the mayor, and a disciplinary letter was placed in his file, a spokesman said. Mr. Mugnos couldn't be reached for comment.
The email sent to City Hall describes a "flying photo op" -- government-speak for a publicity photo -- to include two or possibly three passes over the area. The email, sent by the FAA's Air Traffic System Operations Security and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, lists detailed flight patterns and specifies a photo-op altitude of 1,000 to 1,500 feet.
The email also says that, "Due to the possibility of public concern regarding [Department of Defense] aircraft flying at low levels, coordination with Federal, State and Local law enforcement agencies...has been accomplished." The document also specifies that the information "only be shared with persons with a need to know" and "shall not be released to the public." The email's author, James J. Johnston, of FAA air traffic, declined to comment.
An Obama administration official said the mission was "classified" by the military and that the FAA, which controls much of the airspace over Manhattan, did what the military asked. "The mission was to send [the aircraft] up to get a picture of it flying around the Statue of Liberty," this person said. "They said they needed to update their photo files." President Obama wasn't aboard.
The New York photo shoot wasn't the only one planned. The White House had scheduled a follow-up session on May 5 or May 6 in Washington, D.C., according to two government officials. The D.C. flyover has now been canceled, a government official said.
Louis Caldera, a former Secretary of the Army who runs the White House Military Office, took the blame. "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," he said. "I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused."
Mr. Caldera met Monday afternoon with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina "to hear the president's displeasure," the official said.
It was a beautiful spring day in the Big Apple -- perfect for picture taking. The aircraft, painted in White House livery, was trailed by two F-16 fighter jets. All three aircraft had flown from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, across New Jersey, down the Hudson River and then circled the Statue of Liberty before heading off.
For many who witnessed the maneuver, it stirred dark memories. Andrew Wybolt, who works for Barclays PLC in a skyscraper that borders the Hudson, said people rushed for the windows when they heard the planes. "They just started sprinting and freaking out," he said.
[Louis Caldera photo in 2006] Associated Press
Louis Caldera, pictured in 2006, took blame for the flight.
Thousands of workers from Merrill Lynch, American Express and other companies in the buildings that ring the former World Trade Center site hustled for the exits. Many stood outside their offices, nervously looking up into the sky, while hundreds of others walked north, along the West Side highway, as thousands of people had done the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
"To do something like this to all these people who have already been through 9-11 is just wrong," said Greg Forman, a broker at the New York Mercantile Exchange. The exchange, which is currently in a building along the Hudson, had offices in the World Trade Center at the time of the 2001 attacks.
One block north, construction workers on the 43-story Goldman Sachs Group Inc. tower said they had a close-up view of the low-flying plane. "I saw that thing coming and ran down the stairs," said Eddie Navedo, who was clearing construction debris on the 23rd floor of the new building when he spotted the plane flying low over the river, then banking sharply to the west. "Everybody was saying, it's a terrorist attack."
Not everyone lost his cool. Mr. Shimon, the manager of the barber shop where people fled on Monday, was present for the attacks in 2001, and in fact at that time worked in a shop even closer to the World Trade Center than his current one. He watched the towers fall that day.
So did the events of Monday scare him? "To tell you the truth, not really," Mr. Shimon said. "I didn't think it was such a big deal. I'm a New Yorker."
—Stephen Power and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this article.