President Barack Obama has made clear what he will miss the most when he leaves office in 15 months. “People sometimes ask me what the biggest perk of being president is,” he told visitors at the White House last week. “No. 1 is the plane.”
In September, he told another audience that “the plane is nice” and that unfortunately for him “my lease is running out,” so he might soon have to “start taking off my shoes again going through security.” In Kenya in July, he noted that when he visited as a young man his luggage was lost: “That doesn’t happen on Air Force One.”
But the plane is getting old. After more than a million miles of flying while in office, its current primary passenger is planning to bequeath his successor — or perhaps his successor’s successor — a new-and-improved Air Force One spiffed up for the smartphone age.
The Defense Department hopes to sign an initial contract with Boeing in the coming weeks to begin the long process of assembling a new presidential aircraft capable of ferrying the commander in chief around the world with the capacity to run a war from midair if necessary. Built on the frame of a Boeing 747-8, it will be bigger, more powerful, able to fly farther and vastly more advanced technologically than the current customized Boeing 747-200B jumbo jet.
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Obama himself will not benefit from the trade-in. By some estimates, the new plane may not be available until 2023, when Hillary Rodham Clinton or Donald Trump or whoever beats them may be close to finishing a second term. And it will not be cheap. The Air Force has asked for $102 million in the coming fiscal year and $3 billion over the next five years, not counting any further cost.
“It’s way overdue,” said Joseph Hagin, a White House deputy chief of staff under President George W. Bush who initiated plans for a new plane only to see them shelved when the nation’s finances grew precarious. “You can hang new engines on it, you can cram all sorts of new technology on it, but it’s still a very old airplane.”
Air Force One is actually not a single plane; in fact, it is a radio call sign used for any plane that happens to carry the president. There are two 747-200s, designated VC-25As by the Air Force, that carry the president unless he travels to a place where the runway is too short, in which case he switches to a smaller plane.
Those 747-200s, with tail codes 28000 and 29000, were commissioned by Ronald Reagan and delivered in 1990 under the first President George Bush, when the Soviet Union was still around and White House aides used beepers. The big communications innovation at the time was a fax machine that the president’s staff could use to keep in touch with the ground.
Boeing stopped making 747-200s more than two decades ago, and only 20 of them are left flying in the world, mainly as freight planes in developing countries. Spare parts are no longer made for the plane, so the Air Force often has to have them custom built. Inspections and maintenance work are so frequent that one or the other of the two planes is often out of service.
Air Force One, of course, is not just a plane. It is power. It is national identity. It is even a movie star. The large blue-and-white aircraft with “United States of America” emblazoned on the side has come to symbolize the country and has captured the imagination of even Americans who have not seen the namesake film starring Harrison Ford as a president fending off Russian hijackers.
Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to fly aboard a plane converted for his use, called the Sacred Cow, in 1945. The Air Force One designation was said to first be used during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s tenure, but it has achieved such worldwide status that a Kenyan woman who gave birth around the time of Obama’s visit last summer even named her baby AirForceOne Barack Obama.
“That airplane represents every American, and it’s a symbol of our republic,” said Jeff Underwood, the historian at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. “People see it as an extension not only of the president but the United States. It has a visceral national pride sort of thing.”
Nine previous Air Force One planes are on display at the museum, including the Boeing 707 that carried John F. Kennedy to Dallas in November 1963, then brought his body back to Washington after Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office on board. The Air Force One on display at Reagan’s presidential library in California, seen during the recent Republican presidential debate, is on loan from the Air Force Museum.
The current plane is a flying White House. While impressive, it is not splashy in the sense of Trump’s private jet with its gold-plated fixtures.
4,000Square feet of space on Air Force One’s three levels, including an office, conference room, bedroom and medical suite that can be used as an operating room
On the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the second President Bush was kept flying from air base to air base for fear of his being targeted, and he was deeply frustrated with spotty communications, leading to upgrades afterward.
The Air Force selected Boeing as the maker of the next plane this year. The 747-8 will have 66,500 pounds of engine thrust. Once modified, it will be capable of midair refueling, hardened against the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear explosion and almost certainly equipped with defenses to deflect heat-seeking missiles.
This sort of project has a way of ballooning in cost. A project to build a new Marine One helicopter got so out of control that Obama’s administration canceled it after taking office and a new contract has been issued.
“We hope that doesn’t happen with the plane, that they’ve learned their lesson,” said Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a group that criticized the Marine One project.
As it is, given the reported $180,000-an-hour flying cost, presidents are often criticized for using Air Force One for their political or personal purposes. But so far, members of both parties seem to be going along with plans for a new plane. After all, no one knows which side will have the White House when it becomes available for use.
“Air Force One gives us everything that we want,” said Robert Dorr, author of a book about the plane. “It does convey power, but it also conveys class and style and purpose. It’s just exciting to see it arrive. People get excited. They do love it.”
Obama is not the only president to love the plane. “I miss Air Force One,” the younger Bush said last year. “In eight years, they never lost my luggage.” This year, he repeated the sentiment. “I miss, for example, the Air Force’s accommodating me with a shower on the airplane that flew me around,” he said.
When Obama campaigned with Bill Clinton in 2012, the incumbent joked about Air Force One. “Bill may not miss being president, but he misses that plane,” Obama said. “Let’s face it, he does. It’s a great plane. And I’ll miss it, too.”
“But not yet!” a supporter called out.
Not yet. But soon enough.