Air Force One is the official air traffic control call sign of a United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. In common parlance the term refers to those Air Force aircraft specifically designed, built, and used for the purpose of transporting the president. The presidential aircraft is a prominent symbol of the American presidency and its power.
The idea of designating specific military aircraft to transport the President arose in 1943, when officials of the United States Army Air Forces, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, became concerned with relying on commercial airlines to transport the president. A C-87 Liberator Express was reconfigured for use as a presidential transport; however, it was rejected by the Secret Service amid concerns over the aircraft's safety record. A C-54 Skymaster was then converted for presidential use; this aircraft, dubbed the Sacred Cow, transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and was subsequently used for another two years by President Harry S. Truman.
Most people have a general idea that the president's plane is a flying office with all sorts of high-tech equipment. But there are two essential facts about Air Force One that the general public isn't aware of.
A number of aircraft types have been used as Air Force One since the creation of the presidential fleet, starting with two Lockheed Constellations in the late 1950s: Columbine II and Columbine III. It also has included two Boeing 707s introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively; since 1990, the presidential fleet has consisted of two Boeing VC-25As.
The two planes have the same general structure as a normal Boeing 747-200B, and similar capabilities. They are almost as tall as a six story building, and they're as long as a city block. Each has four General Electric CF6-80C2B1 jet engines, which provide 56,700 pounds of thrust a piece. The top speed is between 630 and 700 miles per hour and the ceiling maximum (how high the plane can fly) is 45,100 feet. Each plane carries 53,611 gallons of fuel and weighs 833,000 pounds fully loaded for a long-range mission. With a full tank, the plane can fly half way around the world.
Air Force One has 4,000 square feet of interior floor space. Much of it looks more like a hotel or executive office than a jetliner, except for the seatbelts on all the chairs. The lowest level of the plane mostly serves as cargo space. Most of the passenger room is on the middle level, and the upper level is largely dedicated to communications equipment.
The president has onboard living quarters, with his own bedroom, bathroom, workout room and office space. Most of the furniture on the plane was hand-crafted by master carpenters.
Air Force One has a certain mythic, mysterious quality, largely because it is completely off limits to most of us. Even visiting politicians and journalists aren't allowed in some parts of the plane, and the Air Force is careful to conceal specific details of the craft's layout. A number of official and unofficial sources have published general descriptions of what's inside the plane, but nobody (as far as we know) has said for sure how these pieces fit together. And if they did, they'd probably get a polite request to stop it for reasons of national security.
Here's what we know: Like an ordinary Boeing 747, Air Force One has three decks. And, as you can see on TV footage of Air Force One, passengers can enter through three doors. Normally, when you see the president in the news getting on and off Air Force One with a wave, he is using the door onto the middle deck and a rolling staircase has been pulled up to the plane. Journalists normally enter through the rear door, where they immediately climb a staircase to the middle deck. Most of the press area looks something like the first class section of an ordinary jetliner, with comfortable, spaced-out seats.
The crew prepares meals in two fully-equipped galleys. They store a large amount of food in freezers in the lower sections of the plane. The crew is equipped to feed about 100 people at a time, and the storage area holds as many as 2,000 meals.
The plane has a lot of technology in its onboard medical facility. The medical room has an extensive pharmacy, loads of emergency room equipment and even a fold-out operating table. The plane also has a staff doctor, who travels with the president wherever he goes. On every mission, the plane is prepared for a wide range of potential emergencies.
Unlike a normal 747, the plane has its own retractable stairways, for the rear entrance and the front entrance. These stairways open onto the lower deck, and crew members and staff climb internal staircases to get to the upper decks. The plane also has its own baggage-loader. With these additions, the plane never has to depend on an airport's facilities, which could be a security risk.
The most remarkable feature on the plane is it's extensive electronics. It has 85 onboard telephones, a collection of two-way radios, fax machines and computer connections. It also has 19 televisions and assorted office equipment. The phone system is set up for normal air to ground connections and secure lines. The president and his staff can reach just about anybody in the world while cruising tens of thousands of feet in the air.
The onboard electronics include about 238 miles of wiring (twice the amount you'd find in a normal 747). Heavy shielding is tough enough to protect the wiring and crucial electronics from the electromagnetic pulse associated with a nuclear blast.
Another special addition is the in-flight refueling connection. As with the B-2 and other combat craft, in-flight refueling gives Air Force One the ability to stay up in the air indefinitely, which could be crucial in an emergency situation.
Some of the most interesting parts of the plane - it's advanced avionics and defenses -- are classified. But the Air Force asserts the two planes are definitely military aircraft, designed to withstand an air attack. Among other things, the plane is outfitted with electronic counter measures (ECM) to jam enemy radar. The plane can also eject flares to throw heat-seeking missiles off course.
President Donald Trump has criticized the Air Force One program, saying on Twitter that upgrades and replacement costs for the aircraft are "out of control." But for now, the president is still using the traditional 747 jets in the Air Force One program to get around.
President Trump made his maiden voyage on Air Force One in January and found a lot to like. Touching down at Joint Base Andrews after a quick jaunt to Philadelphia for the Republican caucus retreat, Trump told reporters in his office cabin that the iconic presidential jet compared favorably to the personal plane he has used for years.
“That’s a good one, too, but this is a very special plane for a lot of reasons,” Trump said. In classic Trumpian fashion, the president added a few adjectives to describe it: “Beautiful, a great plane, terrific.”