ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE —
VOA's White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman began his post after President Donald Trump took office in January. He and other members of the White House press corps take turns covering the president when he travels. Here is Herman's first-person account of what it's like to fly aboard the famed U.S. presidential aircraft - Air Force One.
“It’s a really big plane.”
I repeated that to myself over and over as I walked under the port wing of Air Force One. Actually, there was also an expletive in that sentence looping through my mind.
I had seen the president’s plane in person numerous times on runways. But walking under the port wing of Air Force Once the first time was a humbling experience, even for a jaded aviation buff.
Any fixed wing plane the president flies on is dubbed Air Force One. There are two VC-25A aircraft – specially configured military versions of the Boeing 7474-200B – that compose the current presidential air transport fleet. Aircraft spotters can differentiate the twins by their distinct tail numbers: 28000 and 29000.
The maximum altitude the pair can reach is nearly 14,000 meters and the top speed is slightly more than 1,000 km/h (Mach 0.92). However, it is speculated the planes can go a bit faster than that.
U.S. Air Force Col. (Ret.) Mark Tillman, who was piloting Air Force One on Sept. 11, 2001, has spoken of how the plane’s F-16 escorts asked him to slow down because he was pushing the sound barrier and the fighter jets were too quickly burning fuel trying to keep pace.
What is perhaps most impressive about the presidential plane is what cannot be seen.
Unlike the civilian version of the Boeing jet the VC-25A has specialized communications equipment – hardened to withstand bursts from nuclear detonations that can cripple typical radios, systems to foil missiles, an operating room for medical emergencies, a self-contained baggage loader and stairs both in the front and aft.
Should it run low on fuel (it can carry about 200,000 liters) the plane could be refueled in flight by a KC-135 tanker.
The three decks encompass about 370 square meters of internal space. And the president has his own office, bed, toilet and shower.
Despite what has been depicted in Hollywood movies the planes do not have a secret escape pod, according to the Air Force.
The president is taken in his armored limousine to the base of the ramp at the front of the aircraft. A few others also use that entrance. The dozen or so members of the media, whose organizations are billed by the government for their seats, board in back prior to the president’s arrival.
There are various security precautions before the initial trek to the tarmac but boarding is relatively straightforward: one’s surname is verified on a list and identification is checked one more time. Then it is up the stairs. On one flight I was allowed to stow a suitcase in cargo space but on the return journey the journalists were told to take all luggage to their cabin.
This makes it critical to pack lightly as reporters and photographers can find themselves on the run to get into the motorcade. Stragglers have been left behind.
The journalists sit in the rear cabin up another internal flight of stairs. The blue leather seats remind me of business class on U.S. domestic flights. But the entertainment options are sparse in comparison. There are a dozen audio channels with music ranging from “Big Country” to jazz and the audio track for the movie shown on small screens at the front of the cabin.
If it is a weekend and a golf tournament is underway the television will be tuned to that — no surprise as many presidents are avid golfers, including President Donald Trump. On a weekday flight a movie may be on the screen and, of course, the commander-in-chief can order whatever he wants shown.
The journalists have no access to the on-board internet. The traveling press pool can ask to use a phone line to file urgent material should the president or another member of his traveling party make a major announcement.
In flight meals
The media members are always eager to get a good in-flight meal, not knowing when they will next have time to eat.
There are always snacks and fruit free for the taking, as well as served set meals from the fully-stocked rear galley.
The Air Force stewards – who perform the role of flight attendants -- are not in uniform in case they need to give safety orders to someone who might outrank them.
Even a styrofoam cup of coffee is served with distinction -- emblazoned with the presidential seal on top of a paper napkin with the logo and the words “Aboard the Presidential Aircraft.”
Meals come on a plastic tray with the presidential seal, as do the Pickard fine china plates (made in America since 1893) which have a gold trim spelling out “Air Force One.”
No plastic utensils here — we get a full set of silverware.
It is similar to what I have experienced traveling numerous times with the U.S. Secretary of State who has access to more modest aircraft. The key difference in this case is the primary passenger: The president of the United States.
Everything revolves around keeping the president able to do his job in the air. That presents challenges for ensuring proper security and communications when the president is aloft.
There have been significant telecommunications systems upgrades since Sept. 11, 2001 when confusion prevented the president from quickly getting precise details of the al-Qaida attack.
Flights on Air Force One these days are much less dramatic but journalists on board must always be vigilant.
President Trump, despite his frequent, scathing criticism of the mainstream media, pops in to the doorway of the media cabin frequently and freely converses, unlike some of his more reticent predecessors.
Trump does not wait for video and audio recorders to be turned on before making comments meaning anxious videographers, photographers and audio technicians need to be in constant stand-by mode for hours.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is a more frequent visitor for what are known as gaggles: on-the-record but off-camera briefings.
On a recent flight on tail number 28000, the plane ran into a serious pocket of turbulent air, knocking the spokesman and several reporters off balance. No one was injured and once Spicer got back on his feet he continued the interaction.
As these are military flights, not under civilian regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration, flight attendants are not policing passengers to fasten seat belts and straighten seat backs. The pilot does not come on the intercom for friendly chit-chat about the weather.
But there is one modern rule strictly enforced: no smoking.
Until the Reagan administration passengers on Air Force One received complimentary cigarettes and were free to light up.
The cigarettes have given way to boxes of presidential M&M’s. But one legacy remaining from those carcinogenic flights: presidential matchbooks are still distributed.
New presidential plane
The VC-25A planes have been in presidential service since 1990 and will ultimately be replaced.
“Cancel order!” President Trump tweeted last December about Boeing’s contract for the next-generation of Air Force One, complaining that its estimated cost of $4 billion was “out of control.”
The Air Force, in 2015, had awarded a contract to the aircraft maker which, so far, has received just $170 million to design modifications for the new 747-8 aircraft.
It is expected to be six meters longer than the present planes used for presidential travel, have a slightly faster cruising speed and an additional 1,800 kilometers in range.
Even if Trump is satisfied with the final cost and specifications, the next generation Air Force One won’t join the military fleet until, at least, 2024 – which would be at the tail end of the current president’s second term, should he be re-elected.