Panetta’s Pilot Thanks Passengers ‘on Behalf of Secretary Gates’

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta waves goodbye to the United Kingdom before returning to Washington on his final flight on the U.S. Air Force E-4B on his last overseas trip as the 23rd Secretary of Defense, Jan. 19, 2013. (DoD photo by Carl Woog)

Talk about a big oops!

The pilot of the E-4B “Doomsday” plane that routinely flies U.S. defense secretaries traveling overseas caused quite a stir among passengers Saturday evening just before landing in Washington.

The flight from London Stansted Airport to Andrews Air Force Base – the final leg of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s six-day trip around Europe– was typical. That is until the pilot came on the public address system and said this:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we should be on the ground at Andrews Air Force Base in 15 minutes. On behalf of Secretary Gates, I’d like to thank you for flying with …”

It’s not clear what he said after that because the commotion and nervous chuckles that erupted throughout mammoth Boeing 747 drowned out the rest of the announcement.

“He just said Gates,” one reporter said to another.

It’s no secret around the Pentagon that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates – who retired in June 2011 — loved the Doomsday plane, particularly its advanced communications that basically allows occupants to keep an eye on military operations anywhere in the world.

The gaffe was certainly ill-timed as it was Panetta’s last overseas trip as defense secretary and former Sen. Chuck Hagel nominated to replace him.

A minute or so later, the pilot returned on the public address system and announced this: “Folks, after checking our flight manifest we noticed Secretary Gates is not on board, but we’d like the thank Secretary Panetta for his 50 years of public service …”

Panetta, in typical fashion, was a good sport after the whole snafu. He popped his head into the press cabin and with an ear-to-ear grin said: “When Hagel’s on the plane, make sure they say Panetta.”

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 4, 2011. (DOD photo by Cherie Cullen)

Marcus Weisgerber
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Marcus Weisgerber

Senior Pentagon Correspondent at Defense News
I write about broad-ranging policy, acquisition and budget issues affecting the US military.
Marcus Weisgerber
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