In many ways, it has become as iconic as the very house in which the President of the United States resides. A home away from home – a flying fortress capable of sustaining the nation’s government if the worst was to happen.
The name Air Force One is known around the world – a gleaming symbol of American might and prestige. The title does not apply to a single plane but rather acts as the call sign for any aircraft with the U.S President on board. There are currently two heavily customised Boeing VC-25As which act as Air Force One and as you might imagine they come with the epitome of modern technology and defensive capabilities.
But the story of Air Force One stretches back decades, to the eve of World War II. It has become an indispensable part of the American story and one that has seen plenty of drama along the way.
Ready in a Moments Notice
The scene often plays out the same. The President appears at the top of a set of stairs on the runway, a cheery wave greets the crowd gathered below. This is the standard image of Air Force One that we see time and time again. A regal chariot of the skies that has become a true symbol of the United States. You can imagine just how impressive of an entrance this must be to those who witness it.
But perhaps what we don’t realise is that one of the two Boeing VC-25As must be fuelled and ready to depart in a moment’s notice. Should there be some kind of catastrophic incident, the President needs to have an emergency escape route on stand-by. This is not simply a lavish ceremonial aircraft.
Aboard this Air Force One is everything that a President needs to ensure the continuation of government work. With a dazzling selection of communication devices, it can function easily as a mobile command centre if the need arises. The electronics are designed to withstand an electromagnetic pulse, while the aircraft can be refuelled mid-flight. If needed, Air Force One can stay airborne for a considerable amount of time. That might all sound a little like a doomsday scenario, but considering the kind of hypothetical apocalyptic plans that were hatched during the Cold War, you can understand why such procedures are in place.
Before World War II, U.S Presidents rarely used aircraft. In fact, Presidents rarely even ventured outside of the country. The kind of grand global events, complete with the slightly awkward photoshoots when leaders from around the world jostle for position while making every attempt to appear like they’re not jostling for position, were infrequent, to say the least.
Even within the confines of the national borders, it was much more common to find Presidents travelling by train than by aircraft.
Though he was no longer in office at the time, Theodore Roosevelt became the first President, sitting or past, ever to fly onboard an aircraft in 1910. And when I say aircraft, I mean one of those early Wright Flyers which now looks like something you might be able to purchase as a DIY aircraft.
As you would have it, it was his fifth cousin Franklin D Roosevelt who became the first sitting President to venture into the skies. While a Douglas Dolphin – an amphibious flying boat – was officially the first aircraft to be purchased in 1933 for the specific role of transporting the President, it’s not exactly clear whether FDR ever actually used it.
His early recorded flights were not onboard a heavily protected, modified aircraft like we see today, but on commercial airliners – minus the commercial passengers. In 1943, it took three separate legs for a Pan Am Boeing 314 flying boat to transport the President to the Casablanca Conference in Morocco.
The End of Commercial Flying
If the idea of the President of the United States flying commercial sounds far-fetched today, the secret service in the 1940s began to feel equally apprehensive, especially with the outbreak of World War II.
The first pick for a dedicated Air Force One submitted by the Air Force was a C-87A – a transport aircraft based on the same shape and style of a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. It was given the call sign, Guess Where II, which may have been getting a little ahead of themselves.
After a thorough review, the aircraft was rejected outright by the secret service, both on the grounds of its poor safety record, but also it seems somebody twigged that having the President on board an aircraft that carried all the hallmarks of a bomber capable of unleashing hell below, might not be a great idea. Guess Where II hadn’t even made it into service, and already it was out – for the President at least. The aircraft went on to transport several members of his administration and even the President’s wife in 1944 before it was officially retired in 1945.
The First Air Force One
In its place, a Douglas C-54 Skymaster was chosen as the first official Presidential aircraft. Nicknamed the Sacred Cow, the Douglas aircraft only transported FDR once, to the Yalta Conference in Crimea in March 1945.
Two months later, FDR was dead, as a result of a massive intracerebral haemorrhage. He was replaced as President by Harry S Truman, who in 1947 also changed the Presidential plane to a C-118 Liftmaster, which he named Independence after the Missouri town he was from.
Truman was followed by Dwight D Eisenhower in 1953 alongside another change in aircraft. At this point, not one, not two – but four aircraft were added to the Presidential fleet. This included two Lockheed C-121 Constellations which became Columbine II and Columbine III (if you’re wondering what happened to the first Columbine, I’m afraid I can’t help you there – but I can tell you that the name Columbine comes from the State flower of Colorado, which was the adopted State of Eisenhower’s wife Mamie.)
Alongside the two larger Constellation aircraft were two smaller aircraft known as Aero Commanders, which could be used for short journeys. But it was Columbine II which holds the distinction of being the first-ever aircraft ever to carry the call sign Air Force One.
The iconic name we know today came about because of an incident that took place in the skies above New York City in 1953.
That day, two aircraft appeared in close proximity. One, carrying President Eisenhower, with the call sign Air Force 8610, and another, a passenger airliner with the call sign Eastern Airlines 8610. You can probably see where I’m going with this. Air traffic control, who had no idea that a plane carrying the President was in their air space, managed to confuse the two aircraft leading to both being directed into the same vicinity. How close they came to one another we aren’t exactly sure, but the confusion, and near-miss, led to the conclusion that the President’s plane needed its own, unique call sign. Air Force One was born.
The Jet Age
In 1959, towards the end of Eisenhower’s second term, Air Force One entered the jet age. Three Boeing 707-120s (VC-137s), were added to the fleet and were designated as SAM (Special Air Missions) 970, 971 and 972.
It was onboard SAM 970 that Eisenhower made his “Flight to Peace” goodwill tour in December 1959, visiting 11 Asian nations in just 19 days, totalling 35,000 km (22,000 miles). Distances that would have been inconceivable just a couple of decades before.
In 1962, now under the presidency of John F Kennedy, yet another aircraft was purchased by the Air Force, this time a Boeing C-137 Stratoliner, which became SAM 26000. This modified aircraft cost $8 million ($68.9 million today) when it arrived, but JFK was said to have reservations over the decor, both inside and out. He described it as “too regal” and recruited French-born American industrial designer Raymond Loewy to design a new exterior for the aircraft.
At this point the aircraft had plenty of red and gold, with the nation’s name emblazoned in capital letters along the side – you can see why JFK thought it all a little too much. Loewy chose to go with two separate shades of blue, a slate blue which was supposed to represent the early Republic, while a Cyan shade represented the present and the future.
The text design was also changed with Loewy going back to the Declaration of Independence to see how the nation’s name was first printed. He found it had been written in upper case in Caslon typeface with slightly more spacing than normal. The same text design was used on the aircraft and very little has changed in the subsequent years.
Tragedy and Moving Forward
While there are countless images of Air Force One, both inside and out, perhaps the most iconic remains an image that was taken on 22nd November 1963. Hours earlier JFK had been assassinated as his open-top car moved slowly through Dallas. While there were reservations about quickly the new President should be sworn in as a matter of respect, the decision was made to go ahead with the ceremony onboard Air Force One.
The picture of Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in as he stands next to Jackie Kennedy, with her husband’s blood still streaked across her coat is a powerful image and one that was designed to show that despite the horror of the day, the continuation of the presidential power, and indeed of the government, was already in place.
One can only imagine what must have been going through Jackie Kennedy’s mind at this point, her face a mixture showing both sadness and a vacantness. As Air Force One climbed into the sky that day on its return to Washington DC, it carried a new sitting President and the body of the previous.
Into the Modern Age
In 1972, SAM 26000 was replaced by SAM 27000 – also a Boeing C-137 Stratoliner. Richard Nixon’s time in office came with two interesting stories during his time on Air Force One. In June 1974, while on a scheduled trip to Syria – how times have changed – the aircraft was suddenly joined in the sky by Syrian fighter jets.
Unfortunately, this was a classic example of what happens when you don’t communicate well. The fighter jets had been dispatched to escort Air Force One into Syria, but the problem was nobody had told the pilots on the presidential aircraft. As you might expect, Air Force One began evasive maneuvers to try and shake off the jets. Astonishingly this went on for the next 7 minutes, with Air Force One pilot Colonel Ralph D. Albertazzie banking the aircraft violently left and right, before going into a steep dive. Finally, communication got through to the cockpit that fighter jets were, in fact, friendly aircraft and Air Force One landed safely in Damascus.
The second story regarding Nixon came just hours after he had resigned the presidency and led to the peculiar case of an aircraft changing its call sign mid-flight. Despite no longer being president, the aircraft which took Nixon to California that day was still designated as Air Force One when it left Washington. However, while it was mid-air, President Ford was sworn in, leading to Colonel Albertazzie requesting that air-traffic control in Kansas City change the aircraft’s call sign from Air Force One to SAM 27000 as it travelled across Kansas.
Under Ronald Reagan, two Boeing 747s were purchased but did not arrive until his predecessor, George H.W Bush was in office. These aircraft saw numerous technological upgrades and for the first time, Air Force One would be protected from an electromagnetic pulse, which I’ll come to shortly when we discuss the latest version.
If we’re talking about iconic photos, the moment George Bush was informed of the attacks on 9/11 while sitting in a classroom in Florida is another that stands out. While the events of that day are well known, what happened to Air Force One immediately after this photo are less so.
The President was immediately rushed onto the waiting aircraft and into the sky. Shortly after, a radio message was received that said Air Force One was entering airspace with multiple aircraft in, one of which was not responding to radio calls. At this point, there were still many questions about exactly what had happened, and whether it was all over. An unspecified threat had come through saying that “Angel”, the classified call sign of Air Force One, would be the next target.
The decision was made to take Air Force One out across the Gulf of Mexico to see if the mystery aircraft followed. It did not and later it was found that the transponder aboard the commercial airliner had malfunctioned and that the crew had not switched to an alternative radio band. Air Force One landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana then at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where President Bush gave a short speech. The specific threat to “Angel” was later discovered to be a miscommunication, but that day nobody was taking anything for granted.
The Modern Air Force One
OK, we’re now pretty much up to date, so let’s take a closer look at the modern Air Force One. Firstly, this is a giant of an aircraft, built over two-stories and totalling 371 sq metres (4,000 sq feet) inside. When used for commercial use, this kind of aircraft can accommodate over 400 people, but on Air Force One that number is only 70.
It is 70.6 metres (230 ft) long and has a wingspan of 59.64 metres (195ft). Inside, Air Force One has living quarters for the President and family, conference rooms (which double as dining rooms) as well as office space for those lucky enough on board to have one. A typical overseas trip onboard Air Force One will include the presidential staff, selected media and of course the battalion of secret service protecting the President. Those on board can stay connected via any of the 85 phone lines on the aircraft while staying up to date with one of the 19 televisions on Air Force One.
Its fuel capacity means it can travel about a quarter of the way around the world before needing to refuel – something it can do while airborne. As I mentioned earlier, Air Force One is protected against an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) with the entire front section of the aircraft essentially a reinforced EMP shield, while all electronics onboard come with their own individual protection.
In terms of self-defence, this is also a quite extraordinary aircraft. Now I must say here, this hasn’t been verified for obvious reasons. The U.S government doesn’t want the world to know how they defend Air Force One, but there have been rumours of an Airborne Laser System (ABL) onboard, which is a high-energy laser weapon system designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles. Unfortunately, we can’t give you any more details on that – but it sure does wonderfully sound futuristic.
Air Force One comes with its own medical facility, which can be turned into an operating theatre at a moments notice, while it’s reported that 2000 meals are always kept on board in case of emergency. The crew of 26 and two separate galleys can rustle up a gourmet spread for everybody on board and serve it all pretty much everything simultaneously. This is a well-oiled operation.
For such a large aircraft, it is also fast. Air Force One is capable of speeds of up to Mach 0.85 (1,049 km/h – 652mph) and has a service ceiling of 13.747 m (45,100 feet), both of which are comparable to commercial 747s in use.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that flying something like this doesn’t come cheap. During the Obama presidency (and we assume it’s roughly the same now) Air Force One cost U.S taxpayers an extraordinary $206,337 per hour to operate.
The Next Generation
In 2015 it was announced that two Boeing 747-8s would become the new presidential aircraft, but once the estimated cost of $4 billion became public, the Air Force began looking for cheaper alternatives. It seems that the government has purchased two 747-8s from a bankrupt Russian airline company. These two aircraft have never been flown and they are about as close to new as second hand can be. It’s not entirely clear when these aircraft will enter service or how much they will eventually cost after modifications.
It was also announced in September 2020 the Air Force is seeking to incorporate supersonic technology into Air Force One. Again, we have no idea when this will be implemented, but the U.S government has already signed contracts with three separate companies to begin development. Watch this space. Air Force One, the most well-protected, modern passenger airliner in the world, will be adding supersonic travel to its dazzling array of capabilities. Things have come a long way from a rickety Wright Flyer just over one hundred years ago.