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An Inside Tour of Air Force One

At first glance, it looks like another Boeing 747-200 airliner, a plane that changed commercial aviation, opened up flying to millions, and crisscrossed the world’s oceans and continents. But the aircraft bears the words “United States of America” on the side of its blue, white and silver fuselage, and is known as Air Force One when it is carrying the president. It is an Air Force plane with a military mission, and it differs from a civilian airliner in plenty of ways, from nose to tail.

Obama boards Air Force One

President Barack Obama boards Air Force One prior to departing Joint Base Andrews, Naval Air Facility Washington enroute to Ft. Bliss, Texas, Aug. 31, 2012. DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

The VC-25A (the military designation of the flying White House) has a different shape at the very tip of its nose and at the rear of its fuselage. The nose design includes an air refueling receptacle designed to enable Air Force One to gulp down gas in the middle of the sky and to have almost unlimited range. The rear fuselage has minor contour changes to accommodate special equipment related to the presidential mission. To ensure the VC-25A is self-sufficient on the ground, it is equipped with a second Garrett AiResearch GTC331-200 auxiliary power unit.

It is an Air Force plane with a military mission, and it differs from a civilian airliner in plenty of ways, from nose to tail.

The two virtually identical presidential VC-25As, known to the 89th Airlift Wing as SAM 28000 and SAM 29000, are otherwise unremarkable in any exterior comparison to a commercial 747. The cockpit of the VC-25A provides ample room for two pilots, navigator, and flight engineer, and is roomier than the flight deck of a comparable airliner. Yet in spite of the enormous size of the VC-25A, the flight deck is essentially the same size as the one on the earlier VC-137C.

The two Boeing VC-25As

SAM 28000, one of two Air Force VC-25As, sits on the ramp as SAM 29000, “Air Force One,” lands at Hickam Air Force Base (AFB) with U.S. President George W. Bush on board for his first visit to Hawaii while holding office. DoD photo by Cpl. Roman Gray, USMC

The presidential pilot happens to look down at the world from a lofty perch. On the VC-25A, the pilots sit on a flight deck situated fully 29 feet above the ground, roughly 100 feet in front of the main landing gear, and 12 feet in front of the nose gear. Being this high up and this far forward demands careful thinking, and a great deal of training, when Air Force One is being maneuvered on the ground.

 

CREW POSITIONS

In addition to the four flight crewmembers on the front deck, the VC-25A has crew positions for three ACSOs (airborne communications systems operators) although even on routine missions it carries an extra ACSO for a total of four. In the early days of military flying, a separate crew position was needed on large aircraft to operate the radios, and the first airborne radio operators were drawn from the Army’s Signal Corps. Since World War II, radio operators have typically begun their training at Keesler Field, Mississippi, and have been responsible for the HF (high-frequency), VHF (very high frequency), and UHF (ultra high-frequency) radios found on most transports. A 1982 study for the Pentagon’s air staff by Chief Master Sgt. Ken Witkin, a radio operator on then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s aircraft, Air Force Two, changed the name of the career field from “airborne radio operator” to ACSO. The ACSOs who serve aboard Air Force One are part of the Presidential Pilot’s Office and serve under a chief of communications. Under this non-commissioned officer, is a second slot is for a standardization and evaluation ACSO.

The communications gear effectively renders obsolete the original mission of the the Air Force’s other Boeing 747 model, the E-4B National Airborne Command Post, operated by the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. With the communications afforded by the VC-25A, the president no longer needs a separate command post in wartime.

VC-25 Air Force One refueling receptacle

Air Force One (VC-25) arrives at Andrews AFB, Md., with President George W. Bush aboard, returning from a visit to Beijing, China. The bulge above the nose radome is the fairing covering the refueling receptacle for the Air Force’s flying boom system. DoD photo by SRA Joseph Lozada, USAF

The VC-25A has a special communications suite served by its three radio operator positions. The MCS (Mission Communications System) provides for worldwide transmission and reception of both normal and secure communications. The MCS includes multifrequency radios and 85 telephones for air-to-ground, air-to-air, and satellite communications. The airmen working at the radio stations have a huge responsibility for strategic communications but they also handle prosaic tasks such as showing television and film programming to the president and other dignitaries. Much of the design work on the communications suite was directed not by a corporate executive or a senior officer but by one of the actual operators, Chief Master Sgt. Jimmy Bull, who once held the top communicator’s job.

VC-25A Air Force One engines

Air Force One sits on the tarmac at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, prior to President Barack Obama’s departure for Tokyo, Japan, Nov. 12, 2009. Each VC-25A’s four engines are equipped with especially large lubricating oil tanks to keep the aircraft airborne for extended periods if necessary. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The MCS suite is located on the VC-25A’s upper deck behind the flight crew. Fifty percent greater in size than the suite on previous presidential aircraft, MCS has far more than the standard communications gear found on other big aircraft. The press has speculated that some equipment is provided for a “Doomsday” scenario in which the commander-in-chief would be aloft at the outbreak of a war. Official sources say simply that the VC-25A carries a full suite of communications equipment, enabling the president to talk to just about anyone. The communications gear effectively renders obsolete the original mission of the the Air Force’s other Boeing 747 model, the E-4B National Airborne Command Post, operated by the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. With the communications afforded by the VC-25A, the president no longer needs a separate command post in wartime.

President George W. Bush 911

Former President George W. Bush confers with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in his presidential suite aboard Air Force One Sept. 11, 2001. White House photo by Eric Draper

In the event of a ballistic missile attack on the United States (a “Doomsday” scenario), Pentagon planning includes sufficient air-refueling tankers to keep Air Force One “tanked” with JP-8 aviation fuel indefinitely. Extra work was done on the VC-25A’s engines to increase the amount of oil available to lubricate them, since this factor – coupled with crew fatigue – would limit the duration the aircraft can stay aloft. The president could be kept airborne for five or six days in the VC-25A with minimal difficulty.

STUDYING THE INTERIOR

Since the design features of the 747 are well known, it is the interior of the presidential VC-25A that makes Air Force One different. Everyone associated with Air Force One takes great pride in the aircraft and its systems. There are no publicity hounds in the 89th Airlift Wing, however. On rare occasions when the press is exposed to more than the rear passenger compartment of Air Force One – as when National Geographic magazine filmed a special on Air Force One – activity has been closely watched. When Hollywood asked the Air Force for a guided to tour of the inside of Air Force One, the initial response was negative. Only after President Bill Clinton had dinner with Harrison Ford at the actor’s ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyo., did moviemakers win a look at the presidential plane.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...