Talk about fair-weather friends!
When nine French fighter jets and a weather plane from a French carrier taking part in a joint exercise with Canadian Naval forces in the Atlantic off New Jersey ran perilously low on fuel last Friday because of a freak storm that prevented them from returning to their ship, they figured, no problem. They weren’t too far from the U.S. mainland, and so they could just land at McGuire AF Base in southern New Jersey.
No dice, the Francophobe U.S. military told them. According to a State Department source, quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, they were denied landing rights at the facility.
Faced with the choice of ditching their planes or finding an alternative landing site, the French pilots, with the help of frantic State Department and Federal Aviation Administration officers, managed to arrange landing permission at the commercial airfield in Atlantic City, though this necessitated delaying and rerouting several commercial flights because of the number of planes that were coming in at once.
No national American media mentioned this stunning–and potentially life-threatening–breach of basic air etiquette by the U.S. military. And not for lack of knowing about it: many news organizations covered the whole thing as a humor item, focusing on the French pilots spending a night in the debauchery of America’s East Coast Vegas.
Even the Inquirer, which did report on the incident with at least a modicum of seriousness, failed to go to the Pentagon and ask the obvious question: Why were ten planes from a European ally denied emergency landing rights at a fully equipped and prepared U.S. Air Force base when they were in danger of crashing from lack of fuel? (I did make that call, and was referred to the media relations office at McGuire, where a spokeswoman denied that the French planes had been turned away-a direct contradiction of the story out of the State Department. She had no answer when asked whether the French pilots had requested permission to land at the airbase.)
It boggles the mind to think that this nail-biting incident could have been the result of Pentagon pique at France for having refused to go along with the Bush Iraq War plan, but one is hard-pressed to come up with an alternative explanation.
Even Soviet planes, at the height of the Cold War, weren’t turned away in emergencies.
And this was an ally.
At least the people of Atlantic City were gracious hosts to the plucky French pilots, reportedly offering them meals and hotel rooms.
One wonders what the American reaction would be if a French military airport turned away American pilots in similar circumstances-or what the French reaction would have been if the planes hadn’t made it safely to Atlantic City.