The Interesting Engineering Behind Air Force One

May 16, 2017

Air Force One, the fleet of incredibly over-engineered aircraft destined to take the president of the United States to wherever they need to go around the world in luxury and absolute safety.

Air Force Boeing VC-25A – Commonly referred to as Air Force One [Image Source: Vince Alongi via Wikimedia Commons]

Technically, any Air Force aircraft the president boards become Air Force One. Though there have been many Air Force One aircraft, we will only go in to explore the most famous, massive and incredibly modified Boeing 747’s. Specifically the VC-25As, or Boeing 747-200s  which have been in service since 1990.

Air Force One

Getting the president around the world of one of the most powerful nations on the planet is no easy task. The aircraft on which they ride must get them from one destination to another. However, that is certainly far from the only task any Air Force One (AF1) aircraft must achieve. The aircraft must act as the oval office away from Washington to be open for business- whatever that may entail. The president must at all times be available in case a major conflict arises and immediate action is necessary to protect the nation, and of course, the presidents themselves.

Keeping the president safe while in a giant flying metal tube bordering the speed of sound is a tricky task. Danger could loom around every corner and every cloud. To prevent disaster, Air Force One makes use of some astounding technology to ensure the president arrives safe and alive. Here are the most impressive features aboard the president’s flying fortress.

The plane is a massive two story 230-foot long flying fortress with over 4,000 square feet of usable space. In commercial use, the plane seats over 400, for the president, however, only 102 can make the lucky ride. Although, those are hardly intriguing considering the other magnificent features of perhaps the most advanced plane on the planet.

[Image Source: U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons]

Refuel anytime, anywhere

Should things ever turn south on the ground, Air Force One must retain the ability to stay in the air for a very, very long time. On one tank, the presidential flying fortress can fly about a quarter of the way around the world. While sufficient enough for any other typical aviation traveler, for the president, it is far from.

One of the most important features on board the aircraft is a special addition which allows aerial refueling. The attachment enables the plane to stay in the air almost indefinitely until the plane can land (permitting it does not break down). Using a modified refueler, a gas line extends from the back where an Air Force One pilot carefully guides the plane into position. A refueling attachment at the front of the plane opens and allows fuel to flow into the aircraft.  With less than a meter of room for error, the maneuver must be incredibly precise. Refueling is incredibly dangerous and expensive. If at all possible, mid-air refueling is completely avoided.

Nuclear Protection

The modern day doomsday device. It is a real threat that looms everywhere around the world. Though the plane is not designed to survive the blast, it is protected from other potential nuclear hazards.

Electromagnetic pulses, or EMP’s wreak havoc on electronic devices. AF1 is essentially just that- a flying electronic device. Almost every mechanical component relies on electricity. If an EMP was to penetrate the thin aluminum skin, the plane could quite literally fall out of the sky.

Air Force One, however, is three steps ahead. Encasing the entire front section of the plane is EMF shielding. All electronic devices are “hardened” to protect against an electromagnetic pulse be it from the Sun, or a nuclear attack. Its advanced secure communication equipment enables the aircraft to function as the president’s mobile command center no matter the circumstance.

George W. Bush and Laura Bush at TSTC Waco Airport on August 29, 2001 at the the completion of the last Presidential trip aboard Air Force One model VC-137C SAM 27000. Official White House photo. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Advanced Defence Mechanisms

Not surprisingly, AF1 is decked out with the most advanced defense mechanisms on the planet. Typical of military aircraft are flare systems and jammers to hide the aircraft and confuse missiles. What is a little more interesting is the plane’s ability to destroy incoming missiles in mid-air.

The Airborne Laser System (ABL) is an Air Force specialty. It is a high-energy laser weapon system for the destruction of tactical theatre ballistic missiles.

The megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser detects, tracks, and dismantles any incoming missile. Seconds after detecting an incoming threat, the laser locks onto the missile. An incredibly bright beam of light is directed towards the front of the missile. From there, it confuses the guidance system or heats it up to the point of detonation, long before it reaches the plane.

Unfortunately, after billions of dollars in research and development, the project was eventually scrapped. Though the system was only ever installed on one of the military’s 747’s, the missile deterrent laser remains an impressive feature. Due to the top secret nature of AF1’s exact defense mechanisms, it is difficult to tell whether the device is still employed to this day.

On-board Operating Room

Keeping the president alive means catering to all potential threats. Should the president ever fall ill or become injured, there is a fully operational operating room onboard. Along with it is a highly skilled surgeon and a plethora of medications should the worst ever happen.

President Barack Obama plays with Bo, the Obama family dog, aboard Air Force One during a flight to Hawaii, Dec. 23, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Other Interesting Features

With the capacity to seat a little over 100 passengers and with some potentially long flights, AF1 features a gourmet kitchen to feed all of her guests. The crew of about 26 is fully equipped to feed as many as 100 people at once. The storage also holds over 2000 meals in case disaster strikes.

Some other notable features include the 85 telephones onboard to keep the crew and president connected at all times. With it are general use phones, as well as ones with secure lines to hold a secret conversation.

The plane can also go fast. Incredibly fast. With a top speed of about Mach 0.85, the plane can get anywhere almost at the speed of sound.

When AF1 comes in to land, it has utmost priority. Upon approach, the local airways are practically shut down to give priority to AF1. However, in the unlikely event the plane breaks down, there is almost certainly its identical twin nearby. For redundancy, the Air Force maintains two identical 747’s in case one ever breaks down.

The most magnificent plane in the sky

Outrageous running costs aside, Air Force One is an engineering marvel. Though many of its features remain classified, the facts that are known are nothing short of magnificent. It is an incredible plane with an important mission, to get the president where they are going- alive. 

In the words of the Whitehouse;

The President of the United States must be ready to travel anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice. Fortunately, modern Presidents have access to a variety of transportation options — including flying aboard Air Force One.

They continue,

Inside, the President and his travel companions enjoy 4,000 square feet of floor space on three levels, including an extensive suite for the President that features a large office, lavatory, and conference room. Air Force One includes a medical suite that can function as an operating room, and a doctor is permanently on board. The plane’s two food preparation galleys can feed 100 people at a time.

SEE ALSO: Air Force One Mechanics Cause $4 Million Damage to Oxygen Systems

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