Future ‘Doomsday Plane’ Fleet Could Include Used 747s

As Boeing winds down production of the iconic 747 jetliner later this year, a USAF official says the service could still use the platform to add to the E-4B fleet.

The U.S. Air Force E-4B Nightwatches are highly modified military versions of Boeing’s 747-200. [Courtesy: U.S. Air Force]

The U.S. Air Force is considering buying used Boeing 747s as part of its replacement plans for the Boeing E-4B Nightwatch, according to a report.

The E-4B, also known more ominously as the "Doomsday Plane," is a modified four-engine military version of the Boeing 747-200 and has been described as a flying Pentagon war room. The Air Force maintains a fleet of four of the aircraft, which are officially called the National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC). The aircraft are able to fly for weeks or longer with aerial refueling, and have been retrofitted to be survivable in the event of a nuclear strike.

The micro fleet of E-4Bs—which originally deployed in the early 1980s—is aging, prompting the Air Force to consider future plans for the capability.

In its fiscal 2023 budget request, the service indicated it wants to invest $203 million of its research, development, test and evaluation budget to modernize the next iteration of NAOC, known as the Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SAOC) weapons system.

Based upon requests for information (RFI) released by the Air Force, the Department of Defense is willing to buy used commercial aircraft to fulfill the forthcoming SAOC requirement, which needs to be a very large platform and include the redundancy of four engines, Aviation Week reported.

And, much like with the Boeing VC-25 Air Force One replacement program, the consideration of Airbus aircraft is unlikely, according to the report.

Production of Airbus' largest platform, the A380, shut down late last year.

"You need a very large, four-engine aircraft to execute our mission set," Col. Brian Golden, 595th Command and Control Group and NAOC commander, told Aviation Week recently. “If someone’s like, ‘Oh, they don’t make, I don’t know, the 747-800 anymore,’ well, we can acquire those," he said. “You don’t have to buy a brand new aircraft."

The strategy, however, is overshadowed by the fact that Boeing is set to stop making the 747 later this year. Boeing's last four open orders for 747s coming off the production line are slated to be delivered to Atlas Air Worldwide later this year.

"It’s not like a car," Golden told Aviation Week. "You can buy an older aircraft—a few years old, five years old, it doesn’t matter—and the engineers will strip it down and build it back up. So it’s not a risk at all.”

The service is already modernizing flight training for the Doomsday Plane. Last month, the Air Force took delivery of a new high-fidelity, full-motion flight simulator for the E-4B that will allow pilots and flight engineers to train for flight operations and aerial refueling.

The new simulator replaces a representational Boeing 747 training device located in Florida and reliance on training sorties that had become limited because of high mission operational needs, the service said.

Kimberly is managing editor of FLYING Digital.

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