Your Captain Speaking
Air Force One
Just off of Highway 290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg lies the Lyndon Baines Johnson Ranch. During his five years in office, LBJ flew back to his ranch 74 times. In the late 1960s, the duties of Air Force One were carried out by a Boeing-707. Alas, LBJ’s ranch grandiose though it was, was ill-equipped to handle a 250,000-pound airplane like the 707. From his early years in Texas politics to his days in Congress, Johnson flew in to a 3,000-foot grass strip. When he took the highest office in the land, the strip was upgraded to a 6,300-foot-long paved strip in order to accommodate a Lockheed JetStar VC-140. President Johnson referred to the 41,000 pound, 10-seat aircraft as “Air Force One Half”.
FDR was the first sitting president to fly. He took a Boeing 314 Clipper to the Casablanca Conference in 1943. Presidents FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower saw a C-54 Skymaster, a VC-118 Liftmaster, and a C-121 Constellation pressed into service, respectively.
In 1953, Eisenhower’s aircraft was flying along under the call sign, Air Force 8610. Eastern Airlines also had a plane in the air with the same flight number. There was confusion and the airliner entered the same airspace as the president’s plane. This confusion directly led to the creation of the unique call sign, Air Force One, though it would be six years before Eisenhower made the first official flight under the now iconic call sign. By the time the call sign appeared in 1959, the 707 had brought presidential travel into the jet age. During a 19-day stretch in December 1959, Eisenhower managed to fly over 22,000 miles and visit 11 Asian nations — two times faster than a Constellation could have accomplished his “Flight to Peace” goodwill tour.
In October of 1962, a Boeing C-137 Stratoliner — a modified long-range Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000 version of the 707 — was purchased by the U.S. Air Force. President John F. Kennedy felt the plane’s marking reflected a more royal appearance than befit a democratically elected public official. Jacqueline Kennedy helped her husband through the process of redesigning the aesthetic of the plane, leading to the classic teal look complemented by the presidential seal. SAM 26000 served as Air Force One through 1998 and Bill Clinton’s presidency. President Johnson was sworn into office aboard the plane.
SAM 27000, another modified Stratoliner, came online in late 1972 with President Nixon. Air Force One was over Syria in June of 1974 when Syrian fighter jets intercepted the aircraft. Nixon’s pilots immediately took evasive action, throwing the plane into a steep dive and getting on the ground as soon as possible. The Syrians had neglected to notify the United States that the fighters were dispatched to escort the American delegation. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, and climbed on SAM 27000 to fly to California. The plane was over Jefferson City, Missouri when President Ford was sworn-in prompting the following conversation with Air Traffic Control:Colonel Ralph Albertazzie, pilot of Air Force One: Kansas City Center, this was Air Force One. Will you change our call sign to SAM 27000? Air Traffic Control: Roger, SAM 27000. Good luck to the President.
Almost thirty years later, SAM 27000 performed its last flight as Air Force One carrying President George W. Bush to Waco, Texas on August 29, 2001. By that time, the Boeing 747 had become the primary aircraft to claim the call sign.
The U.S. Air Force published a Request for Proposal (RFP), in 1985 under President Ronald Reagan. The RFP called for two wide-body, three-plus engine aircraft with a minimum range of 6,000 miles. Only two companies responded. McDonnell Douglas put forth their DC-10 and Boeing nominated the “queen of the skies”, the 747-200 jumbo jet. Two 747s were ordered and First Lady Nancy Reagan drew up the initial interior designs. After a few delays, including one to protect the sophisticated craft from electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), the Air Force took delivery of the 747s, designated VC-25As, in 1990 under President George H.W. Bush. Though a great deal of the capabilities of the aircraft remain classified, it is public knowledge the President has secure phone and computer communications available to him while on board. Along with the Marine One helicopters, the 747s call Andrews Air Force Base home.
Air Force One is capable of aerial refueling and boasts over 4,000 square feet of interior space, including a conference/dining room, private quarters, office area for senior staff, a medical facility, work and rest areas, enough galleys for 100 meals at a time, a self-contained baggage loader, front and aft air-stairs, and proprietary navigation, communication, and electronic technology. It can travel 6,735 nautical miles (without refueling) at a speed of 0.84 Mach, an altitude of 45,000 feet, and take-off at a gross weight over 830,000 pounds. Each of the four engines produce more than 56,000 pounds of thrust.
The Boeing 747-8 and the Airbus A380s emerged as leading contenders to the USAFs Air Mobility Command as replacements to the VC-25As. In 2009, after serving as Air Force One for 19 years, the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization Program, conducted by the Air Force Material Command, publicized a search for a replacement to begin service in 2017. When the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company announced it would not respond to the notice, Boeing was left as the sole applicant. Boeing nominated both the 747-8 and the 787 Dreamliner as possibilities. The Air Force selected the 747-8 on January 28, 2015. In any case, the next aircraft to join the 89th Airlift Wing in Maryland (assuming President Trump doesn’t cancel it) will be an expensive one. The U.S. Air Force’s projected budget for the plane is nearly $4 billion. Various sources put Air Force One between 20 – 25% of the entire Air Force budget!
Acquisition cost aside, the plane is incredibly expensive to operate. Often, the 747 is preceded by a fleet of several cargo planes that stage the planned destination. The plane receives extensive maintenance attention before and after every flight, and costs over $200,000 per flight hour. (For comparison’s sake, a private citizen can charter a private 747 for less than $17,000 an hour).
Cost aside, Air Force One has forged an iconic place in history and implemented ground-breaking technology, most of which we won’t learn about for a long time to come.
Please provide us with some basic information.