The two jumbo jets designated specifically for presidential transport have now been in service for more than a quarter century. Although these two modified Boeing 747-200Bs, known as VC-25s, are a couple of the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world, with encrypted communications and electromagnetic pulse defenses, they are aging. It’s time to start working on the replacement jets for Air Force One.
“It’s going to cost me money in the long run,” General Carlton D. Everhart, commander of Air Mobility Command, said of continuing to fly the VC-25s. “It’s not as efficient as a newer aircraft would be.” Everhart recently talked with Popular Mechanics about the future of Air Force One, why the next AF1 will be a 747, and how you go about turning an ordinary airframe into a plane fit for the president.
Air Force One is not a specific plane, but the call sign for any USAF aircraft with a sitting U.S. president on board. The VC-25s that do the job today entered service during George H.W. Bush’s administration. In January 2015, the Air Force announced that new Boeing 747-8s would replace the VC-25s, and the long and complicated work to select and modify two of Boeing’s largest 747 models began. After all, it’s not easy to outfit one of the largest planes in the world for the President of the United States. The job is so extensive that the current administration is unlikely to ever get a chance to fly in the new airplanes. The Air Force understands this, and they have been gearing up for the project, working with Boeing far in advance to select the specific airframes to buy and test.
Then, in December 2016, the newly-elected Donald Trump tweeted this:
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 6, 2016
Trump’s criticism of the plan to acquire new presidential aircraft threw the 747-8’s future as Air Force One into doubt. Aircraft manufacturers and aerospace analysts were quick to put forth ideas for different AF1 options, including one particularly bold report that suggested the future B-21 bomber as a presidential transport.
More realistic studies suggested using the Boeing 737, a reliable aircraft that is already used by the U.S. Navy and USAF. Converting a 737 for presidential use would be cheaper and easier than doing so with the hulking 747-8, considering military aircraft based on the 737—like the P-8 Poseidon and C-40 Clipper—already have many of the communication and defense systems that Air Force One will need. But using a 737 over the new 747-8 would require the Air Force to abandon two of its primary requirements for AF1: that it has four engines and room for at least 70 passengers.
THE FOUR-ENGINE FUTURE
The Air Force is researching ways to make development of Air Force One cheaper, but General Everhart says that moving away from the 747-8 is almost certainly not going to happen. Everhart, who is responsible for shuttling the president, told Popular Mechanics the 747-8 is essentially set in stone “just by default.” For one thing, Boeing is the only American plane manufacturer building large four-engine airliners.
“As I look at the requirements, there are three things that we have to support the president with,” Everhart says. “We have to support him as our Commander-in-Chief, also as our Chief Diplomat, and also our Chief Executive. … I have to have a flying, alternate White House to keep the continuity of government and continuity of operations.”
Conducting the business of the Executive Branch while in flight requires a lot more than just safely transporting the POTUS. It means making a large number of staff members available, keeping lines open to government officials in the U.S. and elsewhere, and providing all the resources the President of the United States needs to run the country. The need to power such a plane drove the Air Force’s requirement of a four-engine jet, but that’s not all. There’s also the question of redundancy and safety.
“It just makes sense because if I lose a motor on takeoff or… say, a shot was taken, a surface-to-air missile, and took out a motor,” says Everhart. “Some of the places the president goes to, the next base may be 500, 600 miles away.”
“Does that mean that a two-engine airplane in the future may be able to fit that bill? Sure. Right now the way the requirements are set about, it’s going to require a four-engine aircraft,” says Everhart. So long as those requirements stay, the 747-8 is really the only logical choice.
YEARS TO COME
The Air Force acquisition office and Boeing are still in a negotiation phase to select the specific airframes to buy. After the Air Force acquires the new jets, initial testing will need to be completed before modifications are made, says Everhart.
Those modifications are extensive. Ultimately, Air Force One will need encrypted communications systems, aerial refueling capabilities, and defenses against both conventional and electromagnetic pulse weapons. The two-tiered, four-engine wide-body airliner will need structural modifications as well, dividing the cabins into offices and conference rooms and sleeping quarters. Even the stairs, traditionally on the left side of Air Force One, will likely need to be swapped over from the right side where Boeing currently installs them.
“Where do we put the press, Secret Service, the galley, medical, his quarters?” asks Everhart. “Those are the modifications that will be done to support the president.”
It’s going to be many years before we see a new pair of Air Force One jets take to the skies. The president who will fly aboard them may be an obscure or little-known politician at this point (or perhaps not yet a politician at all). But one thing is clear: The future Air Force One will almost certainly be a 747-8.