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AIR FORCE ONE : the revamping of a myth
AIR FORCE ONE : the revamping of a myth


AIR FORCE ONE : the revamping of a myth

The emblematic aircraft of the United States’ President found itself in the middle of a media frenzy at the end of the year. The reason: the development cost of its future replacement by the newly-elected president, Donald Trump.

The new president who officially started his duties on January 20 was quick to denounce last December the renewal program of the two Boeing 747-200B via Twitter. In the words of the newly-elected president: “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order! ”. Before adding several hours later in a second message that: “The plane is totally out of control. It’s going to be over $4bn for Air Force One program and I think it’s ridiculous. I think Boeing is doing a little bit of a number. We want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that much money”. A slap in the face for the aircraft manufacturer but also for the various subcontractors, or merely publicity?


Nothing is certain. Particularly as the new American president made a point of meeting with Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg on January 13 At the end of the hour-long meeting with Donald Trump, the head of Boeing stated: “We made some great progress on simplifying requirements for Air Force One, streamlining the process, streamlining certification” and added that “this results in major cost reductions”. The threat given by the candidate appears to have paid off. Yet, the $4 billion price tag announced by Trump is subject to dispute. The contract signed between the US Air Force and Boeing to develop a new Air Force One based on the 747-8 estimated a total cost of $2.8 billion over five years. This amount was based on a first protocol signed in 2016 between the two parties and payment of a $170 million installment in order conduct the study program. However this signature was long overdue. The program was for a long time put on standby by the US administration. For a while even a possible deal with Airbus was being considered to purchase an A380. A flurry of media coverage and a good press campaign which obviously did not lead to anything else. The ultimate American symbol, Air Force One had to remain in the hands of Boeing.


The program, conducted jointly by Boeing and various subcontractors remains a necessity from both an operational and strategic point of view. The two VC-25A, operated from the Andrews Air Force Base as part of the 1st Airlift Squadron, are first and foremost a powerful tool serving diplomacy as well as the economic and military strategy of the United States around the world. The two presidential 747s were officially ordered in July 1986. Respectively called SAM 28000 and SAM 29000, the two four-engine aircraft were ordered in 1986 by the US Air Force to replace the ageing VC-137s that had been in service since 1962. The emblematic 747 was chosen as the successor following a request for proposals which pitted it against two other competitors at the time: the DC-10 by Mc Donnell Douglas and the Tristar by Lockheed. However, the 747 was favored by the authorities not only for its size but also for what the aircraft represents around the world to the general public, the “Made in America” know-how. In addition to transporting the American president in a “flying Oval Office” the four-engine aircraft is also a renowned symbol of the economic power of the United State around the world. Initially planned to be inaugurated by President Reagan in June 1989, the delivery of the two Boeing 747s was delayed. And the first aircraft was not officially declared to be operational until September 1990 under the authority of George Bush.


Far from being a simple Boeing 747-200 transformed into a VIP version, the development program of the VC-25A encountered some turbulence and delays related in particular to the integration of a multitude of systems which were totally innovative at the time. The presidential 747s finally entered into American history with the help of the general media after a fifteen-month delay and at a cost of over $600 million (versus the original $261 million estimate). However, while the exterior certainly looks like a 747, the complete transformation of the aircraft fully distances it from the original design. Starting with its performance. The VC-25A has range of over 12,600 km, i.e. 1,600 km more than the original version thanks to the integration of additional fuel tanks as well as the General Electric engine resulting in 7 tons of extra thrust compared to the “commercial” version. Thanks to its aerial refueling ability, a first for this type of aircraft, the four-engine aircraft can at least double its original flight range and fly beyond the planned 14 hours. The VC-25A was designed to be a fortress. In this respect, in addition to its autonomy, the US Air Force, Boeing and the equipment manufacturers fitted the aircraft with systems protected against a wide range of threats emanating from the ground or the sky. The electric cabling, spanning 383 kilometers, i.e. twice as long as an ordinary Boeing 747, is reinforced in order to withstand an electromagnetic pulse generated by an atomic explosion. In addition there are electronic countermeasures, various radar jammers, anti-missiledecoys, as well as other equipment the exact nature of which remains a defense secret. As for communication, the aircraft has a wide range of systems such as the high-speed internet connection and 87 phone lines. To provide these services, the aircraft is equipped with over 50 antennae spread out discretely across the aircraft. The transmission center located on board the aircraft manages all incoming and outgoing communications in air-to-air and air-to-ground mode, as well as on military frequencies, voice and internet encryption. Since entering into service the aircraft has nevertheless underwent a number of major revisions especially following the attacks of September 11, 2001. On that day, Air Force One would face its most challenging crisis situation. President George W. Bush took an emergency flight on the VC-25 and from on-board gave the authorization to destroy any airliner and other threats. However, Air Force One was required to land at the Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana so that the president could make a live national announcement. At the time, the aircraft was not equipped for live broadcasting. After the crisis, the system was revamped and the aircraft now has a live video feed via satellite allowing the president to remain safely on board in the event of a crisis.


Anything the US president can do from the White House can now be done in the air. This has been and will continue to be the guideline of the program. While the standard version can transport up to 400 passengers, the VC-25 has been optimized to transport 80 people in 370 mÇ located on three separate levels and in different zones. The heart of the aircraft, the second floor hosts the president and his family as well as the presidential team. Referred to as the “White House”, the area in the front section used by the president and his senior staff includes the presidential zone featuring a living quarters, an office as well as a small bathroom with a shower. There is also a full medical facility on the same floor as well as a sound-proof conference room including a large table for eight people as well as screens and various communication systems. At the rear section of the second floor are three separate spaces equipped with seats similar to those found in business class generally for guests and journalists. The zone also contains around ten seats for the crew.

Also found in the rear section are small service spaces, toilets and a service staircase to the baggage hold and the ancillary rear door. A rule on Air Force One is that passengers, apart from the crew, can always move towards the rear of the aircraft but never ahead of their assigned seats. The first floor includes the baggage hold and food storage. The aircraft may contain 2,000 meals in order to remain autonomous for the entire duration of the presidential trip and even longer. The emblematic hump of the aircraft is primarily dedicated to the crew and the nerve center of the aircraft, namely the communications and defense center.


Every flight on Air Force One is conducted as a high-priority military mission. Accordingly, the mission orders are given by the White House and taken into account by the commander of the squadron. In reality, each mission is carefully prepared ahead of time, especially for flights to sensitive destinations. During each trip, the two aircraft fly together in order to be able to take over in the event of a problem. While the backup aircraft plays an essential role in the security of the mission, the “Air Force One” radio call sign is strictly reserved for the aircraft transporting the Potus (President of the United States). In this respect, any aircraft carrying the US president is referred to by this call sign. T o date, and despite an average of 170 trips per year, the two VC-25A have never failed. The 100% reliability rate is primarily due to the extremely thorough maintenance. The aircraft  is revised after every return trip. Any part showing even the slightest signs of wear is immediately replaced. A double and even triple technical verification is also performed prior to take off. Naturally, this level of maintenance comes at a price: an average of $180,000 per flight hour. A figure that could however decrease if the contract for the two new aircraft was endorsed by the current administration. Among the studies being conducted by Boeing, the one for a drastic reduction in maintenance costs figures prominently. Along the same lines, the contract signed in January 2016 was aimed at identifying possible cost reductions in the aerial refueling and communication systems. The second contract, signed on July 15, 2016, was however focused on studying the reduction of risks related to pre-engineering and the development of the aircraft design with the integration of all new  systems. While the program has already been underway for a year, the coming months will be decisive as regards the survival of this particularly strategic new program. Until then we will have to wait and see.

By Frédéric Vergnères

Copyright : USAIrForce / Edward G. Martens

ULTIMATE JET Administrator

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