Trump buys Russian! So much for 'Make America Great Again'...
So, how much would you pay for a second-hand aeroplane? Well Donald J Trump – or at least the American public – is about to get his cheque book out for an eye-watering $5.3 billion to procure two Boeing VC-25B executive transport aircraft. And (you couldn’t make this up) the aircraft that will become the nextgeneration ‘Air Force One’ fleet aren’t even brand-new. They’re being bought secondhand from a defunct Russian airline.
The Pentagon has apparently budgeted $4.68 billion for the acquisition and conversion of two mothballed Boeing 747-8i airliners. The other half a billion is to cover what the military refers to as ‘the full implementation of the programme’, encompassing ‘all costs associated with fielding the system’.
Actually, the budget is a mark of parsimony from Trump’s White House. Washington’s intervention forced the Air Force to move away from new aircraft to acquire the two airframes that have spent two years stored in the Mojave desert in southern California following the collapse of the Russian airline Transaero. The actual purchase price of the two Russian jets is said to be a bargain $390 million each, but the real costs have begun to be incurred now that the aircraft have been flown to Kelly Field in Texas where the modification work will begin.
Details of the specification are naturally secret but, based on information on the two current B747 based VC-25A aircraft that have been in service since 1990, the jets are likely to be configured to accommodate about eighty passengers, the main deck being used for the Presidential suite at the front of the aircraft, while lesser mortals at the rear have accommodation akin to an airline first-class cabin. There are separate quarters for guests, senior staff, Secret Service, security personnel and news media, located in the aft area of the main deck. Protocol states that one may wander aft of one’s assigned seat, but not forward of it.
The front section, nicknamed the ‘White House’, includes sleeping quarters with two couches that can be converted into beds, bathrooms and the President’s ‘Oval Office aboard Air Force One’. The aircraft also contains a conference room, used for meetings with staff while travelling as well as teleconferencing while in the air. It is said that the current VC-23AS (which only use the callsign ‘Air Force One’ when the President is aboard) can also be operated as a military command centre in the event of an incident such as a nuclear attack.
The electronics on board are covered with heavy shielding for protection from an electromagnetic pulse in the event of a nuclear explosion. The aircraft also has
Protocol states that one may wander aft of one's assigned seat, but not forward of it
a suite of electronic countermeasures to jam enemy radar, flares to confuse heatseeking weapons, and chaff to bamboozle radar-guided missiles.
A medical annex, which includes a foldout operating table and a fully-stocked pharmacy, is staffed by a surgeon and nurse on every flight. While the new aircraft will lack their predecessors’ little-used in-flight refuelling capability, which meant they could theoretically stay airborne for days at a time, the new aircraft will still be self-sufficient for lengthy periods, carrying all the food needed. Meals are prepared in two galleys, which together are equipped to feed up to 100 people at a time.
The concept of a dedicated presidential transport began in 1943, when security staff raised concerns regarding the use of commercial airlines to transport the President. Originally, a converted Consolidated Liberator bomber named Guess Where II was earmarked for use, but was rejected because of the type’s transportation safety record. A Douglas C-54 Skymaster, dubbed ‘the Sacred Cow’, was then converted and carried President Franklin D Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in February 1945. It was subsequently used for another two years by President Harry S Truman before being replaced by a modified C-118 Liftmaster, named Independence after Truman’s Missouri hometown. This was the first presidential aircraft that had a distinctive exterior – a bald eagle head painted on its nose.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced two Lockheed VC-121 Constellations, named Columbine II and Columbine III, by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower after the columbine, the official state flower of her adopted home state of Colorado. ‘Ike’ also upgraded Air Force One’s technology by adding an airto-ground telephone and an air-to-ground teletype machine. The Constellations in turn were replaced by a series of Boeing VC-137S, modified Boeing 707s which brought Eisenhower and his successor John F Kennedy into the age of jet travel.
It was Kennedy, with the French-born American industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who was responsible for the distinctive Air Force One livery. Their research on the project included the typeface from the first printed copy of the United States Declaration of Independence for the words ‘United States of America’ on the aircraft sides, the presidential seal carried on both sides of the fuselage near the nose, and the two shades of blue which represent the early republic and the modern presidency.
Unlike the fictional Air Force One in the eponymous movie of the same name, the new presidential transports will not be equipped with personal escape pod and parachutes for emergency use. However there has been one unexpected expenditure. Included in the $600 million of ‘programme implementation costs’ is a brand-new hangar. It turns out that the existing hangar at Andrews AFB near Washington is a few feet smaller than the longer and wider 747-8i aircraft!
Stephen is CEO of the Light Aircraft Association, Vice-chair of the General Aviation Awareness Council, flies a Piper Cub and spent seven years helping restore the ‘Biggles Biplane’ 1914 BE2C replica