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An Inside Tour of Air Force One

Any discussion of the features of Air Force One – speaking of movies – probably ought to include a couple of features that aren’t found on the aircraft. In the motion picture Independence Day, Air Force One arrives at a base where little green men from another galaxy are preserved in glass bottles. In John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, an especially unpleasant president, played by Donald Pleasance, cheats death by using an escape capsule in which the president can eject from the aircraft in an emergency. The escape capsule made its second appearance in the film Air Force One. An Air Force official once jokingly refused to comment on the little green men, but confirmed that the VC-25A does not have an escape capsule. The VC-25A also does not carry weapons or parachutes.

Barack Obama weekly address

President Barack Obama delivers his weekly address, filmed aboard Air Force One between vital diplomatic engagements in Europe. The VC-25s are packed with communications equipment, both military and otherwise.
Official White House photo by
Pete Souza

Air Force One (the real one, not the movie version, nor the digitally altered Virgin Air 747-400 used in the TV drama “The West Wing” with Martin Sheen) has a copious interior, although not as copious as filmdom’s fictional replications. The real aircraft includes a presidential suite comprising a conference/dining room, lounge/bedroom, and office space for senior staff members. A second conference room can be converted into a medical facility, if required. The interior contains work and rest areas for a small presidential staff and a few media representatives, and a rest area for the flight crew. In all, Air Force One provides seating for 70 passengers and 23 crewmembers. This tour will not provide exact locations of each compartment. There is no useful purpose in pinpointing the exact location of the president and his staff at any given time.

The under-floor storage area is divided into general and special storage locations, the latter including sufficient food for 2,000 meals. The lower deck also contains an automated, self-contained cargo loader and additional equipment.

In some ways, the Air Force flight attendants who work in the main fuselage of Air Force One have a job that is both the best and the most challenging. The VC-25A is equipped with two complete galleys for food preparation, each capable of feeding 50 people. Unlike those who work on airliners, flight attendants on Air Force One work on every aspect of food acquisition, preparation, and service.

Barack Obama with staff in meeting room

President Barack Obama meeting with his staff April 5, 2009, in the meeting room aboard Air Force One on a flight from Prague, Czech Republic to Ankara, Turkey. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The VC-25A aircraft has two self-contained “airstairs,” aimed at minimizing the need for ground support equipment and permitting the aircraft to be independent of most ground support facilities. The self-contained stair units provide entry and exit at a door located below and to the right of the main door normally used with boarding using stairs provided at the air base. A person entering Air Force One via the “airstairs” would be located in the below-deck storage area and would climb an interior stairway to the main deck. The under-floor storage area is divided into general and special storage locations, the latter including sufficient food for 2,000 meals. The lower deck also contains an automated, self-contained cargo loader and additional equipment.

Maj. Gen. James Hawkins, a former commander of the 89th Airlift Wing, remembers when he first saw a VC-25A during an assignment to Andrews in 1994. “I thought it was a remarkable aircraft,” Hawkins said in an interview. “I compared it to the inside of a ship, a cruise ship, with the way it’s proportioned, and with the mahogany in the conference room.”

Corridor Air Force One

The corridor stretching down the port (left) side of the aircraft’s second deck. The two chairs are a guard post for Secret Service agents.George Bush Presidential Library and Museum photo

Hawkins pointed out that while the VC-25A offers comfort suitable for the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, it is by no means opulent or ostentatious. “It is a practical aircraft.”

A few years ago, the manufacturer of the presidential VC-25A came up with numbers to put the remarkable performance of the aircraft in perspective. When this type of 747 is fully pressurized, says the numbers expert, nearly a ton of air is added to its weight. The VC-25A has six million parts. Its tail height of 63 feet 5 inches is equivalent to a six-story building. The wing area is 5,600 square feet, enough to hold 45 medium-sized automobiles. The powered flight made by Wilbur and Orville Wright on Dec. 17, 1903, could have been completed in the length of space provided by the VC-25A’s interior fuselage, or across its 195 foot 8 inch wingspan. If anyone wanted to do it, the interior of the president’s aerial White House supposedly could be filled with 745,670 golf balls.

Air Force One lower door

Former President George W. Bush boards Air Force One via the lower airstairs Monday, June 12, 2006, en route to Iraq. White House photo by Eric Draper

Maintenance on Air Force One is carried out by enlisted Air Force troops – and not, as at many other Air Force bases, by Air Force or contract civilians. This is unusual, because the rest of the 89th Airlift Wing now has shifted to contractor maintenance and uses civilians to keep its planes flying. Like Air Force One’s cockpit crew and communicators, the maintenance people belong to the Presidential Airlift Group, which also operates C-20C Gulfstream III aircraft. About 1,000 of the 89th wing’s 6,000 members directly support VC-25A operations.


Specifications of the VC-25A (747-2G4B)

Powerplant: four General Electric F103-GE-180 (CF6-80C2B1) turbofan engines providing 56,750-lb (25741 kg) thrust each

Accommodation: four flight crew (two pilots, navigator, flight engineer); total crew members 23; normal passenger count 70

Performance: maximum level speed 610 mph (981 km/h); cruising altitude 45,000 ft (13715 m); maximum range, 9,100 mi (14644 km)

Weights: empty weight 372,500 lb (168962 kg); maximum take-off weight 793,000 lb (359696 kg)

Dimensions: span 195 ft 8 in (59.64 m); length 231 ft 10 in (70.66 m); height 63 ft 5 in (19.33 m)


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