Air Force One: The Next Generation

The famous Boeing aircraft has been producing serious presidential lift for quite some time—and it’s due for replacement.

Air Force One is due to be replaced, but it may not happen in 2024 as was planned. [U.S. Government Works]

Air Force One is perhaps the most recognizable Boeing in the sky, providing lift for the president of the United States and their entourage—and it’s due for replacement. There have been multiple delays, and the aircraft that were supposed to be ready in 2024 are likely several years away.

Replacing a VC-25A

In 2015 the Air Force announced plans to replace the pair of Boeing 747-200Bs that have served the president of the United States since 1990 with two Boeing 747-8s. The Air Force designation for the 747-200B is VC-25A, with the “V” denoting a VIP/executive configuration and the “C” standing for cargo.

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Government officials noted the cost of maintaining the systems on the aging airplanes, coupled with less efficient and environmentally friendly GE-CF6 engines, made their replacement necessary. The newer aircraft, VC-25Bs, feature more fuel-efficient engines and modern systems.

The price of the modified jet is in the billions and paid for by U.S. taxpayers. The cost has been a point of contention since December 2016 when then-President-elect Donald Trump took to social media to decry the expense at “more than $4 billion” and ended with the phrase “Cancel order!” This led to then-Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg meeting with the incoming administration, and according to CNN, “promising to work to limit the cost of the new planes,” which it noted was actually $5 billion.

The last piston-powered aircraft used to transport the commander in chief were a pair of C-121 Lockheed Constellations used by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. They were named ‘Columbine’ and ‘Columbine II ’ respectively. ‘Columbine II’ was the first to be known as Air Force One. [Collection of Alan Radecki]

Normally, cost overruns are passed on to the U.S. taxpayers. But in 2018, Boeing, fearing a cancellation of the order, agreed to a fixed cost of $3.9 billion.

The incoming administration wanted the aircraft to be ready by 2021, three years sooner than the planned delivery date. Boeing officials pointed out the aircraft, which, at the time, were in California undergoing the necessary modifications to serve as Air Force One and would require at least three years of flight testing before they could be delivered. In addition, it wanted a livery change, removing the robin’s-egg blue that has been on the aircraft since the John. F. Kennedy administration and replacing it with a dark blue and red stripe on the fuselage.

The COVID-19 pandemic shutting down factories and crippling global supply chains created further delays, which also added to the cost. In October 2023, CNN reported cost overruns on both aircraft had reached $1 million each.

In April 2023, current Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun was quoted by multiple sources saying the aerospace giant should not have signed the contract with the Air Force to produce the jets for $3.9 billion, calling the negotiation for the jets “a very unique set of risks Boeing probably shouldn't have taken.”

In May 2023, the Air Force announced it was rejecting the color scheme because it would require additional engineering, as the dark blue paint would absorb more heat and could damage electrical components on board, and would have required additional testing for the FAA, again adding to the cost of the aircraft. In response, President Joe Biden ordered a return to the light blue that did not require additional testing.

As of press time, the aircraft were reportedly in California undergoing the test program. The Air Force, citing security concerns, would not give FLYING more details but did state that “flight testing is required to verify the aircraft meets airworthiness and mission-related requirements, and the Air Force and FAA use standard processes and protocols for testing this commercial-derivative aircraft.”

As far as alterations to the design go, the Air Force notes “the program has a defined set of requirements. While changes are possible, the goal is to minimize requirements changes.”

We’d Tell You, but…

Boeing points out the jets used by the president undergo a variety of Special Air Mission (SAM) modifications that include the ability to refuel in midair and an advanced telecommunications suite capable of air-to-air, air-to-ground, and satellite communications, not to mention a “super secret if we told you we’d have to kill you” security system.

The SAM aircraft are designed to be a self-sufficient “flying Oval Office,” complete with 4,000 square feet of interior floor space, quarters for the president and first spouse, conference and dining room, two galleys that can provide 100 meals at one sitting, office areas for senior

staff, including one that can convert into a medical facility if needed, and work and rest areas for the president’s staff, pilots and crew, and media representatives. In addition, unlike other 747s, Air Force One sports a self-contained baggage loader and front and aft stairs.

And those are just the details that aren’t classified.


Comparing the 747-200 and 747-8

• According to Boeing, the 747-8 emits 16 tons less carbon dioxide emissions than the 747-200.

• The 747-8 boasts a range of 7,730 nm miles, a gain of 995 miles.

• The cruise speed of the 747-8 is 0.855 Mach, making it the fastest commercial jet in the world.

• The maximum takeoff weight for the 747-8 is 987,000 pounds, a gain of 154,000 pounds.

• The wingspan of the 747-8 is 224 feet, 5 inches, a gain of 28 feet, 7 inches.

• The length of the 747-8 is 250 feet, 2 inches, making it a full 19 feet longer than its predecessor.

Presidents and Airplanes

Presidential aviation dates to 1910 when President Theodore Roosevelt took a flight in a Wright brothers biplane. He enjoyed the experience, calling it “the bulliest experience he ever had.”

The first sitting president to use an airplane as a mode of conveyance was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1943 traveled to a World War II conference in Morocco aboard a Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat.

FDR also made use of a specially modified Douglas C-54 Skymaster, named Sacred Cow, that was equipped with a special lift to accommodate the disabled president and his wheelchair. This established a rule that the president flies on a dedicated presidential airplane.

At the end of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's second term, the Air Force opted to move from

propeller-driven aircraft to jets and ordered three Boeing 707s (VC-137As) designated SAM 970, 971, 972. At first, the jets had an orange nose. President John. F Kennedy commissioned the change in livery, resulting in the light blue and white paint job with the presidential seal that the aircraft have carried since.

The call sign Air Force One was adopted after a 1953 incident when a commercially operated Eastern Airlines flight, 8610, crossed paths with “Columbine II,” a Lockheed VC-121-ALO Constellation, designated Air Force 8610, that was carrying Eisenhower.

Today, any airplane that carries the president of the United States is designated as Air Force One.

[U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Ryan Crane]

Can We Track Air Force One on FlightAware?

FlightAware uses a combination of sources to track flights, including radar data, transponder signals, and position reports from air traffic control. Air Force One, like other aircraft, emits a unique transponder code that helps FlightAware identify and track its position.

It is worth noting that while FlightAware provides a wealth of information, there may be limitations on tracking Air Force One because of security concerns. The exact location of the aircraft may not be displayed in real time, as certain flights may be subject to temporary restrictions or blackouts.

This feature first appeared in the January-February 2024/Issue 945 of FLYING’s print edition.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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