- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is plenty peeved about last month’s Air Force One buzzing of New York City, which he said cost as much as $357,012 — less than $50,000 of which is considered “reimbursable,” and a stunt that prompted the resignation of the White House official who coordinated the flyover.

In a letter to Arizona Sen. John McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Gates expressed concern over the mission, later acknowledged to be nothing more than an outing to “update the official photograph” of the president’s official plane.

“I am concerned that this highly public and visible mission did not include an appropriate public affairs plan nor adequate review and approval by senior Air Force and [Department of Defense] officials,” Mr. Gates wrote in the May 5 letter.

“In addition, I am concerned about the use of an Air National Guard aircraft … as a participant in this event. I have asked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ensure that the Military Service and National Guard Bureau procedures for such activities include appropriate safeguards, checks and balances to ensure missions of this type are properly reviewed, vetted and announced in the future,” he wrote.

An Air Force plane that serves as Air Force One when the president is aboard and two F-16 fighter jets made several passes over Manhattan on April 27 — often at just 1,500 feet — as a “combat” photographer took pictures of the president’s plane passing by the Statue of Liberty. Thousands of New York City workers fled office buildings, fearing another attack like the one that leveled the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

President Obama, who was said to be furious, along with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, accepted the resignation Friday of Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office who coordinated the outing. The New York Daily News broke the story.

The day of the flight, Mr. Caldera took responsibility for the misbegotten photo-op.

“Last week, I approved a mission over New York,” he said in a statement. “I take responsibility for that decision. 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.”

Mr. McCain, a former Navy pilot, asked Mr. Gates for an accounting of who approved the mission and for a cost estimate. The Arizona Republican said he was “profoundly disturbed” by the flight and said the “panic and confusion” caused was “absolutely unacceptable.”

Mr. Gates, a holdover from President Bush’s Cabinet, told the senator that a “preliminary review” shows that the Presidential Airlift Group began planning the mission in late March 2009 and “initiated numerous teleconferences to coordinate and finalize the flight profile.”

Among those contacted, Mr. Gates wrote were New York air traffic control representatives; tower supervisors at Newark and LaGuardia airports; the U.S. Park Police, the office of Mayor Bloomberg; New York and New Jersey police; and New Jersey emergency operations centers in Newark, Jersey City, Bayonne, Hoboken, and Elizabeth.

Mr. Gates laid out a complicated federal formula for calculating the cost of the flight.

“The cost of this mission can be viewed as only those costs classified as direct reimbursables, or the annualized average maintenance costs per flying hour.

Reimbursable costs, primarily fuel for the three aircrafts totaled just under $50,000, Mr. Gates said, but maintenance, logistics and “engine overhaul” costs put the estimated full price tag as high as $357,012. The White House is expected to release the photo of the flyover later on Friday.

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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