FAA's Turn Toward Secrecy

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As the White House photo op fiasco continues to unfold, it looks like it's going to evolve into a fascinating study of bureaucratic predilection toward secrecy. The question is, who ordered the clampdown?

As we're reporting today, an FAA memo making the rounds shows that one James J. Johnston in the FAA's security branch wrote a "need-to-know" memo clearly stating that the press and public shouldn't be informed of the planned flyby. It further says that the FAA would take a passive role in the entire sordid affair, with no public statement or involvement of any kind.

Well, excuse the hell out of me for noticing, but the FAA's fundamental job is to assure air safety. And the largish safety of flight issue here is that the Air Force—with the FAA standing passively by—decided it would be dandy to fly a 747 in a two-ship with an F-16 around the Statute of Liberty at altitudes as low as 1000 feet in the middle of a workday rush hour. If you've ever been through that airspace, you know that it's buzzing with traffic up and down the Hudson, mostly helicopters from the New Jersey side into the heliports on the East Side.

So here comes a 747 the size of Hackensack steaming along at what, 200 knots? Maybe a little less. If you happened to be flying in the corridor and saw an airplane that was clearly Air Force One towing an F-16, you'd soil yourself. You'd figure you missed the NOTAM and were about to be splashed by a missile. In any case, an airplane of that size and speed just doesn't belong there. It's a bad idea and the FAA should recognize it for what it is: the juxtaposition of military aircraft with civil aircraft in constricted airspace such as to endanger the civil aircraft. The tradeoff? A photo the government didn't even need. That's the galling part.

The irony is that the FAA did recognize the hazard. Mr. Johnston says in his memo "due to the possibility of public concern regarding DOD aircraft flying at low levels…" the appropriate agencies were contacted. But they were also told not to tell anyone else, least of all the general public. So, the bottom line is that the FAA saw a problem, knew the public would be concerned and chose to stonewall it, hoping for who knows what to happen? (Ah, Mr. Johnston, it's happening now.)

In my previous blog on this subject and in e-mail I've received, a few readers have suggested that this is a mole hill in search of a mountain. But I don't agree. In my view, this is an example of federal civil servants blatantly and arrogantly ignoring the best interests of the people they are paid—rather better than most of us, I might add—to protect.

The FAA is supposed to push back when it sees safety issues. That's why it exists. Here, it not only didn't do that, it got happily onboard to keep the very public it's supposed to protect uninformed and in the dark. It's less the event itself and more the fundamental unaccountability. (As I write this, no one in the FAA wants to respond to any of this.)

The FAA and other agencies of its ilk will continue to behave this way unless we shame them into doing otherwise and thinking twice about arrogantly ignoring the public interest. So I'm okay if this story goes on for a while until we at least learn of the miscreants involved.

Comments (17)

What was the point of the secrecy? If the government wants to blow a million dollars of the taxpayers' money on a totally pointless excercise during the worst economic time most of us have ever seen, why is it such a secret? Did they actually think nobody would notice an F-16 chasing a 747 around Manhattan? By itself it is somewhat of a mole hill, but as an indicator of the thought processes of those in charge, it is frightening. Just how important is it to the nation that we have a picture of Air Force One over tall buildings? As has been suggested, wouldn't Photoshop have been a hell of a lot easier and cheaper?

Posted by: Richard Montague | April 30, 2009 7:33 AM    Report this comment

In all the debate I have read, nobody seems to have thought through the other side of the coin. Suppose the FAA had issued a NOTAM with a full disclosure of the planned event? Suppose some nutcase with a Stinger then decided AF1 even without POTUS aboard was too sweet to pass up? Jeepers, can you imagine the blogs THEN? Of course the sane thing, given the plentiful bad consequences of disclosure and the equally plentiful and equally bad consequences of non-disclosure, would have been to bag the whole idea. I guess that would have been too much to expect from the infallible types running the White House and the military these days. The FAA does push back against everybody else. Why shouldn't we squawk when they treat the expensive suits differently than the rest of us?

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | April 30, 2009 11:17 AM    Report this comment

(Apologies, I see a few recent comments in the other thread has made the security point. I stand by the rest of my comment)

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | April 30, 2009 11:31 AM    Report this comment

i was very very scared...the thought that terrorists had hijacked airforce one...and a couple of F-16s just lurking above my head...waiting to crash into anyone at any time. it was pure mayhem in new york that morning. buildings were evacuated, and everyone was running around like chickens with their heads cut off. how dare they try and scare us! it was especially hard to tell the difference between that hijacked airplane that looked like airforce one...and the hundreds that fly in that airspace every day. the faa and the white house need to stop tryin to confuse us simple folk!!

Posted by: rob haschat | April 30, 2009 8:43 PM    Report this comment

There is already a flight restriction in that airspace so the issue of an inflight hazard with other aircraft is minimal at best. Also because the TFR exists, there is no need for a NOTAM. And for all we know as civilians, AF1 may have been part of a readiness exercise as well as a photo opportunity. I am tired of hearing all the chicken little stories in this country. There are big airplanes flying around all the time. Fortune favors the bold. If AF1 wants to buzz my house I'll grab my camera!

Posted by: Paul Donahue | May 1, 2009 12:49 AM    Report this comment

There is already a flight restriction in that airspace so the issue of an inflight hazard with other aircraft is minimal at best. Also because the TFR exists<<

There is no TFR for the airspace we're talking about. The TFR applies to the East River, not the Hudson. It was put in place following the Cory Lidle accident. As for large aircraft in that corridor at 1000 feet, I've flown it dozens of times and that's a rarity. Never seen a 747. In any case, New Yorkers have an understandable sensitivity to this since New York is, to the best of my knowledge, the only U.S. city to have had civil buildings attacked from the air. The amount of panic this caused is considerable, all for a photo that wasn't even needed. The FAA clearly understood this before the fact. The larger issue is judgment: We should expect better of the government as it insists that pilots exercise good judgment. If this was a push-to-test readiness exercise, it would rise to the level of insane stupidity.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 1, 2009 4:33 AM    Report this comment

Writing the message above jogged my memory. I took a photographer over the Statue of Liberty--maybe mid 1990s. He wanted a bunch of orbits, like 10 or something, which I didn't want to do because of the volume of traffic from the Jersey side into Wall Street. Our compromise solution was to do it at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The light was better and no traffic. The AF1 brain trust could have done the same. All it would require was placing judgment above arrogance. Is that too much to ask? I don't think so.

Also, the larger issue here is causing high profile airspace and aviation threat panics in major cities. These give more ammunition to interests who want to shut down yet more airspace. Doesn't matter who caused the problem, GA gets the short stick. So we very much have a dog in this fight.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 1, 2009 5:44 AM    Report this comment

Yes, if somebody calls in a Cub flying low along the beaches, the pilot will be punished. Rank Has Its Privilege, but that can be taken too far.

The secrecy angle demonstrates how the govt will lie to us at the drop of a hat for any reason that suits its bizarre purposes. Indeed, there is evidence that FAA supervisors took an active role in destroying audiotape evidence of radio transmissions on 11 September. Go figure.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | May 4, 2009 8:07 AM    Report this comment

This is what I don't get: When an empty AF1 is preparing to fly around in the middle of the busiest airspace, over the most sensitive city in the world, it is kept a secret. When the President is aboard, it is anounced to the world, days in advance, as a Presidential TFR.

Posted by: Steve Tobias | May 4, 2009 8:55 AM    Report this comment

Helluva point Steve.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | May 4, 2009 9:16 AM    Report this comment

I've already been slammed as a whiner by some on a very similar blog here, but I still side with Paul (yes, Bertorelli) and most who posted here before me, maybe even more vehemently than Paul. This incident and the ensuing secrecy are just more irrefutable evidence that our government is no longer "for the people". One of Obama's campaign promises was for a more transparent government. He may have some nice window dressing in other areas, but here, his promise rings very hollow indeed. Complaining to our elected officials is NOT political. As long as we still have the right to do so, it is our civic duty! Only Congress can force the FAA to do anything, since the Supreme Court has decided it just doesn't care what the FAA does or doesn't do.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | May 4, 2009 12:51 PM    Report this comment

Folks... I keep asking for ya to... GET A GRIP! When POTUS is aboard AF1 and it is arriving for him to speak at East Overshoe the publicity surrounding it is massive. The political types want a huge turnout of the faithful to demonstrate the popularity of "their man" and show the opposition that resistance is futile. If you have half a brain and intend to do harm to the aircraft (or occupants thereof) all you need to do is check the NOTAMS. The Bad Guys are patient; they've been waiting centuries to wipe out Christianity, setting up a half-mile from an airport and waiting a few hours for that specific aircraft to show up isn't even the proverbial drop in the bucket to them. What in the world was so different about this photo flight? Is there something we don't yet know about the occupants and/or purpose of the flight? Or... are they just so stupid they thought no one would notice?

Posted by: Mike Thompson | May 4, 2009 2:42 PM    Report this comment

Or... are they just so stupid they thought no one would notice?<<

That. Not so much stupid as a national command structure out of touch with the citizens it's supposed to serve and protect.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 4, 2009 3:00 PM    Report this comment

Good post Bruce. People need to wake up and smell the napalm--the US Constitution went up in flames.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | May 4, 2009 3:10 PM    Report this comment

I am at a loss for words. How many other government bureaucrats in other agencies are keeping things secret that would, if released, expose their arrogance, ignorance and incredibly poor judgement? Probably too damn many.

Posted by: Russell Smith | May 4, 2009 6:41 PM    Report this comment

I agree, If I was flying the corridor and saw Air Force One and a pair of F16's I'd instantly think that "I" busted a TFR as was about to be escorted (or worse) by one of those F16's. Such "surprises" are NOT GOOD for anyone. Even the so-called reason of "security" is stupid since the President was not even on the plane.

This has nothing to do with politics. If you saw AF1 passing off your wing you'd soil your pants no mater what your political views!

Posted by: Mark Fraser | May 6, 2009 9:00 AM    Report this comment

So, do you think they were at least making position reports on the Hudson River CTAF? Somehow I doubt it.

Posted by: Michael Friedman | May 13, 2009 2:55 PM    Report this comment

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