The president's new wings

The US Air Force has begun the process of searching for a replacement for Air Force One. Actually, the pride of the presidential aircraft fleet consists of two Boeing VC-25 aircraft, either one of which has the call sign Air Force One when the president is aboard. The VC-25 is the military version of the familiar 747-200 airliner, except the presidential version of the VC-25 is seriously tricked out. Since the USAF plans to add another aircraft to the fleet, it is looking for three aircraft to replace the existing two.

Presidents have had their own personal airplanes since FDR’s C-54 (Douglas DC-4) went into service in 1944. Harry S. Truman was the beneficiary of an upgrade to the C-118 (DC-6) in 1947. There was another upgrade in 1953, when the Air Force began purchasing the presidential planes in pairs. Dwight D. Eisenhower had the use of two C-121 Constellations, the civilian version of which was considered the premier airliner of its day. It was not until 1952 that the presidential aircraft was given the call sign Air Force One. The now famous designation was actually classified information during the 1950s, but it became known to the public when the presidential fleet entered the jet age with the acquisition of the C-137B (Boeing 707-120) in 1962. The 137s would serve for 30 years, carrying seven different presidents to destinations all over the world. This Air Force One has become a part of history.

It was with the most recent upgrade, to the VC-25 in 1990, when Air Force One truly became a “flying Oval Office.” Loaded with special electronic and communications gear, the 25s have twice the amount of wiring (over 200 miles of it) that that of a standard 747-200. Those wires are shielded for protection from any EMP pulse which could be generated by a thermonuclear explosion. That’s a critical factor, considering the secure communications capability of the 85 telephones and numerous radios on board Air Force One which depend on satellite communications to keep the president and his staff in touch with military and civilian officials. Some of the other modifications:

4,000 square feet of interior floor space, which features accommodations for the president such as an executive suite consisting of a stateroom (with dressing room, lavatory, and shower) and the president’s office. A conference/dining room is also available for the president, his family, and staff. Other separate accommodations are provided for guests, senior staff, Secret Service and security personnel, and the news media. Two galleys provide up to 100 meals at one sitting. Six passenger lavatories, including disabled access facilities, are provided as well as a rest area and mini-galley for the aircrew. The VC-25A also has a compartment outfitted with medical equipment and supplies for minor medical emergencies.

Unlike the Air Force One depicted in the Harrison Ford movie of the same name, the president’s VC-25 doesn’t have an escape pod or cargo-like rear door, but it is capable of being refueled in flight, just like USAF bombers. The price tag? Boeing delivered the two VC-25s in 1990 for $650 Million. That may seem like a bargain compared to what the taxpayers will have to shell out for the replacement aircraft. It is a bargain compared to the cost of the fleet of Marine One helicopters tasked for use by the president. The aging Blackhawk and Sea King choppers will be replaced with a fleet of 28 new VH-71s at a total cost of $11.1 Billion. But that’s another story.

The two VC-25s are each over 19 years old and will have 27 years of service logged by the time of the replacement of the first aircraft in 2017. The second presidential plane is scheduled to be replaced in 2019, and a third one will join the fleet in 2021. Boeing, which has had the Air Force One market cornered for nearly half a century, is likely to have some stiff competition next time around. The latest version of the venerable humpbacked jet is the 747-8I series, which is a stretched 747 with the high-efficiency engines and new cockpit technology developed for the 787 Dreamliner. But the Air Force will also give EADS a shot at winning the Air Force One Contract. EADS is the parent company of Airbus, a European consortium which, although headquartered in The Netherlands, has major operations in Germany, Spain and France. 

The Air Force will consider The Airbus A-380, a double-decker, wide-body mega-liner which is the largest passenger airliner in the world. The A-380’s cabin has 50% more floor space than the next-largest airliner, the Boeing 747-400. The list price of an A-380 is somewhere around $325 Million, but the window sticker for a specially equipped presidential version is anybody’s guess. The Air Force will also take a look at two smaller Airbus models, the A330 and A340, as it evaluates its options.

One has to wonder why future presidents will need air transportation any larger or more opulent than the current VC-25. The airframes of the present aircraft will have reached the end of their service life at replacement time, and the cost of modifying the existing aircraft to extend their service lives would be more expensive than purchasing new ones. A side-by-side comparison of the 747-8I and the A-380 shows the Boeing aircraft to have a lower initial cost than its European competitor, a greater range and lower fuel consumption as well.

Flight Blogger Jon Ostrower says that Boeing’s 777-300ER is also likely to be an option for the Air Force, and it will be evaluated against the A-330 and A-340.

Personally, I say (only half-jokingly) give the president a spare Lockheed C-130 Hercules or three. These proven birds have been in service for over 50 years, and they are still going strong. They have the additional feature of being able to carry the presidential limo along with the chief of state and his guests, so there’s no reason for POTUS to have to deplane and get into the limo. They can just drop the door, and he can drive right out. There’s even room to have a really nice module inside for the prez with all the luxuries of the VC-25’s executive quarters. Also, the president’s in-flight enjoyment can be enhanced by making the White House press corps ride in the noisy cargo area. Even better, if the C-130H Spectre model is specified, the commander in chief can truly lead the troops into battle, just like the warrior kings of old, with two 20mm cannons, a 40mm cannon and a 105mm howitzer at his or her command.

– JP