White House Seeking New Air Force Ones

VC-25 Air Force One

The White House has urgently asked for new presidential jumbo jets to replace two Air Force One Boeing 747-200 aircraft that will reach their 30-year life expectancy next year and are becoming harder to keep flying, according to the Air Force.

"The real challenge and the challenge that is forcing us to buy newer aircraft for the president is to overcome the fact that there are heroics going on every day to keep the current aircraft flying and it's becoming way too expensive and way too difficult to do that," said Kevin W. Buckley, program executive officer of mobility programs headquartered at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson.

Buckley has oversight of replacing the presidential fleet, known in the Air Force as VC-25s, with two and possibly three Boeing 747-8 planes, a larger and more fuel-efficient version of the iconic blue and white jumbo jetliner with a giant American flag painted on its tail. The Air Force says the new four-engine aircraft will take flight with the president aboard in 2024. Wright-Patterson manages the presidential aircraft replacement program.

"Even with the current replacement program, the existing aircraft will get to be around 35 years old, which is up there in jetliner years," Richard Aboulafia, a senior aviation analysis at the Teal Group in Virginia, said in an email.

While the Air Force has kept bombers and aerial tankers flying decades-longer than ever expected -- many more than half a century old -- that's not an option with the presidential fleet, Buckley said.

"We grit our teeth and bear it in the U.S. Air Force," he said. "We can't do that with the presidential air (fleet). They need 100 percent reliability."

Neither the Air Force nor Boeing released cost estimates when requested Monday, but it was reported early this year that the Air Force has budgeted $1.65 billion between 2015 and 2019 for the new Air Force One. The cost of a commercial Boeing 747-8 is nearly $370 million, according to media reports.

In a recent interview, Buckley said the final cost for the presidential version is "difficult to say at this point because we know we have challenges with affordability." The Air Force was working with Boeing to reduce requirements and costs and a revised estimate was expected next spring or later when an analysis is completed, he said.

So far, the Air Force has awarded $169 million in contracts, he said.

"What drives the price tag isn't the cost of the plane, it's all the costly modifications and equipment that must be installed on such a unique aircraft," said Loren B. Thompson, a senior aviation analyst and industry consultant with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute.

Air Force One is filled with communications gear and defensive equipment to evade airborne threats, such as anti-aircraft missiles.

"It's really not just about getting the president from point A to point B," Buckley said. "It's adding communication equipment. It's adding defensive gear. It's adding everything that the president needs in order to execute his mission in that airplane. He has to be able to do everything in all his roles: commander in chief, chief executive, head of state, president of the United States."

The jetliner is an airborne command post the commander in chief would rely on when the nation is under attack, as former President George W. Bush did when terrorists hijacked U.S. airliners and destroyed the World Trade Center and slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Boeing's 747 is the only U.S.-built jet that can support all the functions required of an airborne White House," Thompson said. "The plane must be linked to all U.S. military forces worldwide and able to function even in the midst of a nuclear war."

The Air Force has a military version of the Boeing 747-200, known as the E-4B and nicknamed the "doomsday plane" -- meant to be an airborne command post in the event of a nuclear attack or national emergency.

Boeing says the next Air Force One will be larger, faster, and fly further than the current version.

The Boeing 747-8 will fly 7,730 nautical miles, nearly 1,000 miles farther than the Boeing 747-200. The new jetliner will be both the fastest and longest commercial airliner in the world, reaching speeds of Mach. 0.855, and measuring slightly over 250 feet in length. And at 987,000 pounds, the new version will weigh 154,000 pounds more than the old version and produce 16 tons less of carbon dioxide on a typical flight, Boeing says.

Air Force One has a presidential stateroom, a conference/dining room and two galleys to feed up to 100 people at a time.

In 2009, high costs spiraled to a reported estimate of $13 billion for a new presidential helicopter and sunk the Navy's plan to buy 23 helos for the White House. A new program to field the Sikorsky VH-92 as Marine One was OK'd in 2014 under a $1.24 billion contract. The first of 21 Marine One helicopters assigned to White House flight duty is expected in 2020.

When the current Air Force One jets retire from presidential duty, area leaders have lobbied the secretary of the Air Force to send one to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson. The museum has carved out future space in a new hangar to put the jumbo jet on display. A decision has not yet been announced.

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