WASHINGTON (CNN) – Imagine putting wings on the White House and getting it to fly around the world.
It’s been done. That’s basically Air Force One in a nutshell.
Now the Pentagon has announced the next generation of this world-class icon will be a military version of the 747-8. For nearly 30 years, the current jumbo jet Air Force One has been a customized version of the 747-200B. The newer 747-8 is longer and more efficient than its older brother.
Why is a new one necessary? “It is time to upgrade,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a statement Wednesday. The difference between the civilian version and what the President will fly on: the commander in chief gets a plane that’s tricked out with top-of-the-line parts and backup systems. And a lot of technology that’s — well — classified.
Let’s remind ourselves why the world is so fascinated with this flying technological marvel.
For more than half a century, passengers aboard the U.S. presidential aircraft have been witness to American history.
Consider the fact that all these things happened on an Air Force One:
— President Kennedy’s body was flown to Washington for burial.
— Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president.
— LBJ let a reporter interview him in the plane’s stateroom, while dressed only in a towel.
— The only woman ever to swear-in a U.S. president did so aboard Air Force One.
— President Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China, where he historically opened the door to U.S.-Chinese relations.
— Air Force One served as President George W. Bush’s command center during the first hours following the 9/11 attacks.
One of the main goals for the new plane, the Air Force said, will be affordability. Although the plane is designed to be more fuel efficient than its predecessor a new 747-8 lists for around $368 million. Add all the presidential bells and whistles and the sticker price goes north rather quickly.
The 747-8 is made in the U.S., which the Air Forced hinted was a plus.
“The Boeing 747-8 is the only aircraft manufactured in the United States (that), when fully missionized, meets the necessary capabilities,” Wednesday’s statement said.
The four-engine Airbus A380 — the world’s largest airliner — which is made in France, was thought by some to be Boeing’s only competition for Air Force One.
When will the President get a new jumbo jet? Hard to say. If everything goes smoothly, Boeing likely will work with the Air Force on hammering out a timeframe and production schedule.
In December, Boeing had 36 unfilled orders for 24 passenger versions and 12 freighter models.
From humble beginnings as a small, less than impressively outfitted plane during the FDR administration, to its current jumbo jet status, Air Force One has become a world-class icon representing power and privilege.
Members of Congress, celebrities and advocates clamor for seats on it, to get rare access to the President — arguably the most powerful person on the planet.
The plane’s well-known blue and white color scheme was largely created by legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy and approved by JFK himself.
Officially, the aircraft is only called Air Force One while a sitting president is aboard. The presidential fleet includes several aircraft, other than the two 747s, that from time to time carry the “Air Force One” call sign.
The presidential helicopter is operated by the Marine Corps and is often seen ferrying the President to and from the South Lawn of the White House. It’s called “Marine One.” On the rare occasion the President travels by Army aircraft, that is known as “Army One.”
By the same logic, aircraft used to carry the vice president are given the call sign “Air Force Two.”
Over the years, the various “Air Force Ones” have had their fair share of Hollywood screen roles.
For example, the technological wizardry onboard the present 747s got wide play in the 1997 Harrison Ford action movie “Air Force One,” in which the President’s jet is hijacked by Russian nationalists.
However, many of the more outlandish gizmos featured in the film owed more to, shall we say, artistic license than to airborne fact.
The plane for example has no escape pod. Nor is it equipped with parachutes — the massive slipstream created by an aircraft the size of a 747 means they can’t be used.
Designed to operate as independently as possible from ground services, the aircraft can fly halfway around the world without refueling.
They carry their own automated baggage loaders as well as built-in front and aft stairs enabling them to operate self-sufficiently at airports and airfields around the world, minimizing security risks.
Capable of in-flight refueling from airborne tankers, manufacturers say the aircraft has “virtually unlimited range” — its passengers sustained by galleys capable of storing up to 2,000 meals at a time.
The entire aircraft is shielded against the effects of electromagnetic pulse — a wave of energy generated by the detonation of a nuclear device that can disable unprotected electronics.
It features private accommodation, office space and a workout room for the President, first lady and family; as well as accommodation and offices for support staff and security personnel.
Also on board is a stateroom and conference rooms that can, should it ever be necessary, be converted into a fully functional airborne medical center.