Air Force One plays a critical role in transporting the president and his staff across the world, and over the years, the aircraft has evolved to match the ever-expanding world leadership role.
Today, we will look at the Air Force One’s humble beginning, its modern implementation, and what future aircraft are under consideration to fly the commander in chief.
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The Beginning …
Air Force One story began in 1933 with the Douglas Dolphin, an amphibious plane owned by the US navy and designated the RD-2. It was fitted with a Luxury upholstery for four passengers and a small separate sleeping compartment. While it only had a range of 601 nautical miles (1,114 km) alas, there are no reports than any president actually flew in the plane between 1933 and its retirement in 1939.
When world war two broke out, the presidential transport was upgraded to the Boeing 314, a Pan Am operated flying boat called the Dixie Clipper. It flew then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt from Washington to Casablanca, Morocco over the Atlantic on a journey over 5,500 miles (8,890 km) in three legs. Planes were favored over boat transport thanks to U-boats’ genuine threat in the deep Atlantic during the war.
While other military aircraft were used in the years following, the first aircraft to actually hold the name of Air Force One was a Lockheed VC-121A-LO Constellation nicknamed Columbine II. It could fly its VIP passenger to a range of 4,700 nautical miles (8,700 km) and it was used from 1962 by President Eisenhower to the beginning of the jet age.
In 1959, three specially built Boeing 707-120 jet aircraft—VC-137s Stratoliners were added to the air force VIP transport fleet. The VC-137s were powerful additions, flying 7,610 miles (12,247 km), could carry up to 22 VIP passengers, and act as a flying command post. They could fly twice as far in the same time as the previous Lockheed Constellations.
These three original 707s operated for president until 1962 with the purchase of the first true presidential jet. A custom-made Boeing C-137 Stratoliner called SAM 26000 was built for $8 million. This was also the first one actually to have the famous baby blue presidential color scheme.
SAM 26000 would be used from 1962 to 1998, although it served as a backup aircraft to a new VC-137 design in 1972. This new aircraft, called SAM 27000 would serve until 2001 as the de facto presidential transport aircraft.
In 1985, the USAF (United States Air Force) issued a Request For Proposal for two wide-body aircraft with a minimum of three engines and an unrefueled range of 6,000 miles (9,700 km). Boeing entered the contest with its 747 and McDonnell Douglas with the DC-10, with Reagan Administration going with the bigger order for two identical 747s to replace the aging 707s he used. The Boeing 747, VC-25A, would be formatted to carry 26 crew members and 76 VIP passengers – including the president and all their staff to a range of 6,800 nautical miles (12,600 km). This is no ordinary Boeing 747 however, it has been formatted to survive EMP attacks and act as a flying center of government (of just the executive branch). It also has the ability to deploy its own stairs in the case it lands at an airport without stair transportation.
Two such Boeing 747 Air Force Ones have been constructed at the cost of $325 million each, and they entered use in 2001.
From here, the Air Force has been considering several options for the next generation of Air Force One aircraft. At the time, the government wasn’t opposed to looking overseas to Airbus with its Airbus A380 platform, which has about 40 percent more interior space than the Boeing 747. Although politics would have prevented anyone but an American manufacturer from making a real bid, it was certainly an interesting proposal.
Another hot contender on the table was the Boeing 777X. The next generation aircraft would have the highest range of any presidential aircraft, and have the advantage of several new features. It would lose some of the floor space compared to the 747, but would have a range of 11,645 nautical miles (21566.54 km), enough to fly almost anywhere in the world.
In 2016, proposals to build a new aircraft from scratch were rejected, thanks to the enormous cost, and a new plan to retrofit two Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental that were never delivered to a Russian airline, were put on the table. These ‘new’ planes were flight tested, but never delivered to the bankrupt airline. With a few modifications of the layout, wiring and EMP protection, these planes can replace the current Boeing 747s and begin a new presidential transport generation.
The 747-8 intercontinental will have a minimum range of 7,730 nautical miles (14,320 km), although likely a lot more thanks to the smaller passenger capacity of around 100 VIP travelers and extra fuel tanks.
But the story doesn’t end here though. The Airforce is also looking beyond the next generation into a supersonic future. They have proposed three different firms Exosonic, Hermes, and Boom to build a supersonic air force one that can transport the president across the country in a matter of minutes, not hours. Boom, the current leader in the supersonic race with the only existing prototype, would develop a 30-seater VIP supersonic aircraft that can fly a range of 4,500 nautical miles (8,300 km) at a speed of Mach 2.2.
Although at this point, you start to wonder if the Air Force has considered other proposals like the Elon Musk’s spaceship that can reportedly reach anywhere in the world in 45 minutes, although perhaps even that is a bit too far-fetched for even the most powerful job in the world.
Thanks so much for watching today’s video! This was a great project to work on in recognition of the 2020 election, and I hope now after watching you are more clued in with the journey of the US air force one aircraft.
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Interestingly, you can take a quiz on this topic and find out how many questions you can get correctly. It’s right here. Good luck!