How Military Flyovers Work

When Flyovers Go Bad

This photograph is one of several official images released by the White House/DoD after the controversial NYC Air Force One flyover in April 2009.
This photograph is one of several official images released by the White House/DoD after the controversial NYC Air Force One flyover in April 2009.
White House/Department of Defense

The botched New York City Air Force One flyover is perhaps the most well known example of a flyover gone wrong. At around 10 a.m. on Monday, April 27, 2009, some residents of New York and New Jersey became panicked when they saw what looked like a Boeing 747 flying low in the sky, circling the region and being trailed by fighter planes. In the wake of Sept. 11, the unusual event provoked an understandably fearful reaction in many people. Workers rushed out of office buildings and emergency service numbers received a deluge of calls.

In fact, the plane was the backup Air Force One jet and it looks just like the one on which the president normally travels. Unfortunately, the White House Military Office hadn't announced to the public that a plane would be flying over as part of a photo-op, although New York City officials had been notified beforehand. As a result, Louis E. Caldera, the director of the White House Military Office, turned in his resignation on May 8, 2009. In the letter, Caldera writes,

"I have concluded that the controversy surrounding the Presidential Airlift Group's aerial photo shoot over New York City has made it impossible for me to effectively lead the White House Military Office. Moreover, it has become a distraction to the important work you are doing as President. After much reflection, I believe it is incumbent on me to tender my resignation and step down as Director of the White House Military Office [source: White House]."

The April 2009 NYC flyover was not the only controversial incident of its kind, particularly in New York. In February 2002, Manhattanites were shocked to see two F-16s returning from a routine patrol, flying at low altitude over the city. On May 15, 2003, a Boeing 777 containing soldiers returning home from Iraq "buzzed" the Statue of Liberty. Flying at an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 feet (610 to 914 meters), the plane had, at the last minute, received special permission to fly low and offer the soldiers a better view of the landmark [source: Saltonstall, Mbugua, Gittrich]. Similar fly-bys had been performed before for returning soldiers. But the incident caused panic among some residents and caused the local fire department to rush to the scene. It also put an end to the practice of fly-bys for returning soldiers.

Because of Sept. 11 and the fallout from the April 2009 flyover, the U.S. government has been much more careful in notifying the public of exercises involving low-flying planes. In May 2009, when NORAD was conducting night-time maneuvers over Washington D.C., the government sent out many press releases, advisories and notifications to local agencies and to the general public.

For more information about flyovers, military planes and other related topics, look over the links below.

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  • "Air Force Denies Request for Flyover at Christian Festival." Fox News. July 7, 2009.
  • "Air Force Used Twitter to Track NY Flyover Fallout." New York Times. Associated Press. Aug. 10, 2009.
  • Hancock, David. "Military NYC Flyover Cost $328,000." CBS News. April 29, 2009.
  • "Memorial Day Military Flyovers." City of Santa Monica.
  • "Military flyover off Staten Island coast opens Fleet Week." Staten Island Advance. May 20, 2009.
  • Phillips, Kate. "D.C. Flyovers Begin at Midnight." New York Times. May 18, 2009.
  • "Request for Military Aerial Support." Department of Defense.
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  • Rulbal, Sal. "Army-Navy event is a flight of fancy." USA Today. Dec. 1, 2007.
  • Saltonstall, David; Mbugua, Martin; Gittrich, Greg. "Just plane crazy Jet buzzes Statue of Liberty." NY Daily News. May 15, 2003.
  • Sulzberger A.G. and Wald, Matthew L. "White House Apologizes for Air Force Flyover." New York Times. April 27, 2009.
  • "USAF Aerial Events Support." U.S. Air Force.
  • U.S. Air Force. "FAQ: U.S. Air Force. "
  • The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. Louis E. Caldera resignation letter. May 8, 2009.