11 interesting facts about the US 'Doomsday Plane'

Get the lowdown on the United States' famous "Doomsday Plane".
Christopher McFadden

Did you know that the United States has four "Doomsday Planes"? A holdover from the Cold War, these aircraft are designed to act as a "National Airborne Operations Center" and are still going strong after more than 40 years. They fly the U.S. Defense Secretary, and other key staff, around the world all the time.

Designed to keep the government operating and act as mobile command centers in case of a disaster like a nuclear attack, these jets are very high-tech, and their only job is to keep communications going for both civilian and military operations, should the unthinkable happen.

Have we whetted your appetite to learn more about them? Then find all you'll need to know about these incredible aircraft. 

What is the U.S. "Doomsday Plane"?

The "Doomsday Planes", otherwise known as the "Nightwatch" aircraft, or more accurately the Boeing E-4B "Advanced Airborne Command Post" (AACP), a militarized version of the Boeing 747-200, are strategic command and control military aircraft flown by the United States Air Force (USAF).

Should the worst ever happen, these aircraft may be critical for continued U.S. operations. Source: gremlin/iStock

Designed and built for the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) program, the fleet of four aircraft consists of a series of Boeing 747-200Bs that have been specially converted to become the E-4 series.

These aircraft are nominally similar to Air Force One but have been outfitted with the most complete and sophisticated spectrum of communications equipment that has ever flown.

Each "Doomsday Plane" is equipped with various communication tools. These consist of very low-frequency antenna that can be trailed up to five miles (8km) behind the aircraft while in flight. Super high-frequency and "Milstar" communications equipment are also housed on top of the aircraft's fuselage within its distinctive dome or bulge.

According to the United States Space Force, "Milstar" is a "joint service satellite communications system that provides secure, jam-resistant, worldwide communications to meet essential wartime requirements for high-priority military users. The multi-satellite constellation links command authorities with a wide variety of resources, including ships, submarines, aircraft and ground stations".

In essence, each of these technologies guarantees that they can communicate with armed units wherever in the world. Not just low- and high-frequency, but nearly all communication levels, from entirely open to private. Additionally, each aircraft has Internet access and the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere via radio and telephone.

Information on exactly how the plane can withstand a nuclear attack is classified, but it is known that the computers and wiring onboard are hardened with thermal and nuclear shielding. The cockpit contains analog controls, and workstations are outfitted with hardwired phones and monitors designed to operate in the event of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse. There are no windows besides the cockpit to protect the communications system from the outside heat or an electromagnetic pulse.

The aircraft can be refueled mid-flight during times of war. They can optimize their flying time, except for crew resupply, of course.

Each plane is a modified Boeing 747-200B. Source: Iberia Airlines/Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, each window in the cockpit has an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) shielding grid to protect the sensitive systems of the plane from harm.

For the "National Command Authority", which consists of the President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense, and any succeeding officials, each E-4 is intended to serve as a resilient mobile command post. The 595th Command and Control Group's 1st Airborne Command and Control Squadron, based at Offutt Air Force Base, not far from Omaha, Nebraska, operates the four E-4B aircraft.

When in use, an E-4B is referred to as a "National Airborne Operations Center."

The fleet was conceived and built during a time when the doctrine of "Mutual Assured Destruction" meant that nuclear war was a clear and present danger, and to many, it may seem like overkill today. However, these aircraft are always on ready alert regardless of the reduced fears of a nuclear holocaust today.

The plane's crew is stationed at a nearby barracks just in case the plane needs to get airborne with urgency.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board