Air Force One : No Longer to be a Proud Image of America’s Supremacy

The latest version 747-8, now to become the new Air Force One in 2023
The latest version 747-8, now to become the new Air Force One in 2023

The 707s were the revolutionary airplane of their age, and when they were chosen to transport the president and be a very visible representation of the United States and its global power in 1959 it was an obvious choice that showcased the United States as leading the world in technology and aviation capabilities.

In the mid 1980s, during the Reagan presidency, it was decided to replace the pair of aging 707s that had acted as Air Force One for 13 and 23 years respectively.  There was little doubt what plane would replace the 707s, and in 1985, two 747-200B planes were accordingly ordered.

At that time, the 747 had undeniably proven itself as a worthy successor to the 707, and represented superlatives in terms of size, weight, and capability in every respect and measure.  With its partial upper deck, the 747 was unmistakable everywhere and anywhere in the world, and our Presidents proudly flew the biggest ‘baddest’ and best plane wherever they travelled.  Particularly to the uninitiated, the choice of the 747-200 provided another visual affirmation of the US as the world’s leader, in aviation and in most other respects.

It had been planned for the two 747s, which entered service in 1990 and 1991, to survive into the early 2020s.  Although they’re now 25 years old, they spend very little tie actually flying.  We guess a typical commercial plane   flies more in a day or two than an Air Force One jet probably does in a month.  So in terms of airframe hours and takeoff/landing cycles, the two planes still have a huge amount of life remaining.  But it now seems the DoD has thrown Boeing a bone, and has accelerated the purchase of replacements for the two no-longer-state-of-the-art planes.

On Wednesday, the successor to the 747-200B was announced.  The new Air Force One fleet will be a pair of 747-8 planes.  A plane that Boeing has been struggling to find customers for (other than in freighter configuration), and is widely expected to be about to discontinue.

But whereas, in their day, both the 707 and the 747 were unquestioned leaders in the aviation world, 1985 was 30 years ago and the replacement of the now dated 747-200B is – another 747.  Sadly, the 747 is no longer king of the skies.  That title was  taken then years ago by the A380, a very much larger plane with two complete decks.

The A380 isn’t only the largest plane, one of them is also the personal plane and plaything of a rich Saudi prince.

It seems likely the two 747-8 planes that will take over Air Force One duties will mark the end of Boeing’s 747 production, and the reason for accelerating the order for an Air Force One replacement is due to the production line’s incipient closure.  So whenever an Air Force One is sighted in the future, it will be a reminder of the end of the US dominance of the commercial jet marketplace, and an image of an essentially 50+ year old plane.  Something that is no longer the biggest or the best.

Of course, to be fair – or perhaps to be unfair – the 747-200B was a curious choice to make back in 1985.  At the time it too was essentially obsolete.  The much larger and superior 747-300 had been on sale since 1980, and the first planes were delivered in 1983 – almost three years before the order was placed for the otherwise obsolete 747-200 planes.

Not only that, the 747-400 – probably the ultimate expression of the 747’s superiority over all other airplanes in the sky and destined to become the best selling of all the 747 variants – was already in development and available for sale, with its first order being received in October 1985.  The Department of Defense ordered a model that was not only not current, it wasn’t just one but two generations out of date.

Even the 707s were hardly state of the art when the second of the two was delivered in 1972.  At that time, the new 747 was already four years into production.  So perhaps this latest order can be excused when viewed in the historical context of ordering obsolete airplanes.

But it is a shame, don’t you think, for the United States now to be represented by an unloved 747 variant that has been a commercial failure, so much so that not a single US airline has ordered any of them.

We’re not disputing the need for our President to have his own plane.  Many other heads of state also fly on official planes, sometimes A330 and A340 planes, sometimes other makes/models, and President Putin feels the need to make a statement and support the largely moribund Russian aircraft industry – he flies on the commercially unsuccessful Ilyushin 96.  So we even understand why the airplane order was given to Boeing rather than Airbus.  But if the airplane order is being dictated by political considerations rather than commercial good sense, we wonder why the DoD didn’t choose Boeing’s new signature 787, or its very capable 777, instead of the 747-8.

The 747-8’s end-of-life status, currently, is made all the more extreme by the extraordinary fact that the planes, although due to be built and handed over in 2018, won’t be ready to enter service as Air Force One until 2023.  Five years for modifications and build-out?  How is that possible?  Or is it just a case of scrambling to buy the planes before they disappear forever?

Two Engines or Four?

Back when the earlier Air Force One 747s were specified and purchased, the notion of planes being able to safely fly long distances with two engines was just starting to become accepted.  It was only in May 1985 that the 767 received ETOPS certification to start operating longer flights, over-water, and further away from emergency airports, and the certification allowed for planes to go a mere 90 minutes away from an emergency runway.

It would not have been practical for an Air Force One to be restricted to this type of ETOPS certification, which had most routes around the world still unflyable by a twin engined jet, and so understandably the DoD and Secret Service insisted on the specification requiring either three or four engines, making it sort of a competition between the DC-10/MD-11 and the 747.

But that was thirty years ago, and now two engined passenger jets are everywhere, while four engined planes are disappearing.  The A-340 has gone out of production, the 747-8 has struggled to get any sales, and the A-380 has achieved only marginal levels of sales.  All the other planes have two engines (there are no tri-engined planes still being made).  ETOPS certification has extended from 90 minutes to now 330 minutes, meaning there are almost no routes, anywhere in the world, that twin-engined planes can’t fly.

But it seems the DoD has failed to update its requirements, and still insists on four engines for Air Force One.

That begs the question :  If we’re not prepared to ‘risk’ our President’s life on a twin-engined plane, why are we expected to risk our own lives?  Are twin engined planes safe or not safe?

6 thoughts on “Air Force One : No Longer to be a Proud Image of America’s Supremacy”

  1. Isn’t one of the requirements that Air Force One must have more than two engines? Therefore the 747 is the only “politically correct” choice.

    (I wonder if they’ll ever build an A380-sized jet with three engines?)

  2. I suspect that some of the other features that the 747 has might not be available on the 787 or the 777 – for instance, in-flight refueling, meaning the plane has virtually unlimited range in the event of catastrophe.

    As far as 2-engine vs. 4-engine, I don’t think it’s a question of whether twin-engined planes are safe or not safe – there is always some measure of risk in everything, from skydiving to crossing the street. But the death of a U.S. president in a plane crash would likely have far more effects on the world than the crash of a jetliner carrying what are, even if it doesn’t sound politically correct to say so, “ordinary people”. Having extra backup for the engines on the presidential aircraft that may be only very rarely needed could still be a sensible choice, while routinely using four engines on a passenger jet may not be.

    1. Hi, Kevin

      I agree that four engines are better than two. But if four are better and justifiable, why stop with ‘only’ four? How about eight, like on a B-52? Or even more…… 🙂

      My point, such as it is, is, as you say – there is always some measure of risk in everything, and where does one draw the line.

      As for the death of a US president, I don’t think that would be profoundly impactful at all. To suggest ‘we owe it to the world’ (not exactly what you are saying) is not valid. We have a relatively recent example of that, when Johnson unexpected replaced Kennedy, and we have to assume and accept that our constitutional process of succession ensures no calamitous crisis, either domestically or internationally.

  3. Ridiculous post. Why must the US President fly in a plane that is “the biggest and the best”? The A380 would, by all accounts, have been considered if Airbus had set up a separate production chain for it in the US. The primary reason for this being that it’s an absolute requirement that the Secret Service be able to monitor final assembly of the aircraft (and possibly other steps in the production chain – I obviously don’t know all the details). Another complicating factor would have been that a foreign company, albeit one based in EU/NATO partners of the United States, would have been responsible for supporting the A380 based AF1 for the duration of its service life. Airbus decided – wisely, of course – that none of this would make financial sense and never made the offer.

    1. Hi, Eric

      I’m not quite sure what you’re saying is ridiculous, other than perhaps everything. But I do note that you simultaneously claim not to know all the details of the issue, but also seem to have insider information about the DoD’s willingness to consider an Airbus proposal and also why it was Airbus chose not to pursue a chance to bid….. Do tell us more, and in particular the source of your knowledge…..



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