Shortly after his inauguration on 20 January, President Donald J Trump will be handed the keys to the world’s ultimate business jet, the US Air Force’s pair of Boeing 747-200-derived VC-25s, known by the call sign Air Force One when the commander-in-chief is on board. If Trump secures a second four-year term in 2020, he may even get to fly on the latest Air Force One, one of at least two new presidential transports based on the 747-8, due to enter service in 2023.

The 747-8s – which Boeing has been working on since winning the Presidential Aircraft Replacement contract in early 2015 – are the latest in a line of US-built airliners which have served as the official head-of-state transport since Roosevelt was in the White House. The current 747-200s entered service during the presidency of the first President Bush at the start of the 1990s and are now nearing the end of their planned 30-year working life.

Of course, Trump is not new to the pleasures of flying in style in a Boeing VIP airliner. The billionaire businessman has for many years used as his personal jet a luxuriously appointed 757, adorned with giant Trump lettering and gold-plated features that mirror the interior design of his Fifth Avenue headquarters and apartment. The aircraft spent much of 2016 criss-crossing vital swing states as he embarked on his controversial but successful campaign.

Air Force One is, of course, much more than “just” a luxury jet. Naturally, it has the comforts and conveniences on board to allow the president to descend the steps in front of the cameras in Moscow, Beijing or Berlin looking fit, refreshed and ready for business. But it also serves as an airborne Oval Office, allowing the leader of the free world and his entourage to run the country from 35,000ft and communicate securely with other parts of the administration on terra firma.

Air Force One

According to Boeing, facilities include: a conference/dining room; sleeping quarters for the president and first lady; an office area for senior staff members and another office that converts into a medical facility; additional work and rest areas for presidential staff, media and USAF crews; galleys able to provide 100 meals at a time, and multi-frequency radios. The General Electric CF6-powered quadjets also come with a self-contained baggage loader and front and aft air stairs.

Air Force One – the call sign was adopted to avoid confusion after an incident involving a Lockheed Constellation carrying President Eisenhower and another aircraft in 1953 – has been central to many of the pivotal moments in modern US history. Perhaps the most iconic was when Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on board the Presidential Boeing 707 hours after John F Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. The same aircraft was used to fly JFK’s body back to the capital.

Later, Nixon flew on Air Force One – a newer 707 – to China to meet with Chairman Mao, the first visit by a US president to the communist country. The president left the capital for California on board the same aircraft after he resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1974. As the Cold War neared an end in 1986, it was Air Force One that conveyed President Regan for breakthrough talks in Reykjavik, Iceland with liberalising Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

It took three decades from the Wright Brothers’ first flight for the concept of a presidential aircraft to gain traction. The first to perform the role was a Douglas Dolphin amphibian – operated by the US Navy during Franklin D Roosevelt’s first presidency in the 1930s. However, the architect of the New Deal is not believed to have flown on it. During the war, however, FDR travelled to the Casablanca conference in 1943 on a Boeing 314 Clipper seaplane and to Yalta in 1945 on a Douglas VC-54C.

After the war, President Truman used the VC-54 and later a Douglas VC-118 (based on the DC-6 Liftmaster). It was named Independence, after Truman’s Missouri hometown. But it was Eisenhower in the 1950s who really launched the era of a converted airliner as an extension of the presidential office, commissioning two Lockheed C-121 Constellations, which were equipped with air-to-ground telephone and teletype machine and were christened Columbine II and Columbine III.

The first jet to serve as Air Force One was the 707 – designated VC-137A – which Eisenhower flew on his tour of 11 Asian nations in 19 days towards the end of his presidency in December 1959. His successor Kennedy travelled extensively on the jet, with the air force adding a longer-range 707 – VC-137C – in 1963. It was the first to carry the distinctive large “United States of America” livery – which has survived to the present.

The 707s served eight presidents, through to the elder Bush, although the two aircraft were not formally retired from service until 1998 and 2001, respectively. The current, much larger 747-200-derived VC-25As were commissioned under the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s. However, Reagan himself had left office by the time they entered service. Barack Obama is the fourth president to have used them.

Boeing has been developing its 747-8 successors for over a year, and in July began working on interior, power and electronic specifications. The formal engineering and manufacturing development phase will begin in 2018. The aircraft must maintain the same level of connectivity and security as the White House, anywhere in the world, and the air force must ensure one is always available at Andrews AFB in Maryland to airlift the president at a moment’s notice.

The contract gave a valuable boost to Boeing’s ailing latest jumbo jet programme and means Seattle will continue a more than 60-year responsibility for providing the presidential transport for at least another quarter century. However, there was a moment nine years ago when it appeared that arch-rival Airbus might be in with a remote chance of snatching the most prestigious VIP airliner order in the world.

While the very idea of an American president flying the Stars and Stripes in a European airliner might have had patriotic US politicians choking on their grits, the USAF in 2007 did ask EADS – as it then was – to submit information on its A380 ahead of a possible competition to design a new Air Force One. In the end, the Toulouse-based airframer declined to offer the superjumbo, arguing that it would be impractical to set up final assembly in the USA.

Meanwhile, after his surprise victory over Hillary Clinton, it will be the familiar phrase “Welcome on board, Mr President” Trump hears when he first ascends these famous air stairs. The president-elect is to be the first occupant of the White House with a private jet and global corporation to his name. But even the ultra-wealthy New York property mogul might feel just a little awed when he takes his seat for the first time in the world’s most famous business aircraft as chief executive of the USA.

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Source: Flight Daily News