Vice President's Plane Malfunction Casts Light on Air Force C-32 Woes

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Vice President Kamala Harris deplanes Air Force Two after a technical issue forced the aircraft to return and land at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Sunday, June 6, 2021, as she was en route to Guatemala City. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The U.S. Air Force has no plans to replace its small fleet of Boeing 757s despite a series of high-profile breakdowns in recent months that has delayed travel for VIPs such as Vice President Kamala Harris.

Over the weekend, Harris was starting her first foreign trip as VP to Guatemala and Mexico when the C-32A she was traveling on, an enhanced 757 used for transport, requested an emergency return to Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, over a technical issue.

"I'm good. I'm good," she said when deplaning, according to Bloomberg White House reporter Jennifer Epstein, who was accompanying Harris on the trip. The aircraft was able to land safely.

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Prior to landing, Symone Sanders, Harris' spokeswoman, told media representatives aboard the plane there were no major safety concerns. A backup C-32 was then used to fly the vice president and her staff to their destination.

In 2018, the C-32 that then-first lady Melania Trump was traveling on was forced to return to Andrews after smoke filled the cabin. Officials at the time said the plane had "a mechanical issue."

Andrews, home of the 89th Airlift Wing, is best known for its special airlift mission to transport VIPs such as the president and vice president. It is home to the VC-25 aircraft, known as "Air Force One" when the president is aboard; the C-32A; the C-37A, a Gulfstream V; the C-37B, a Gulfstream 550; and the C-40, an upgraded Boeing 737-700 business jet.

While the C-32 will remain in the fleet, the Air Force will not pursue investment in the airframe beyond already planned modifications, according to the service's fiscal 2022 budget request. DefenseOne was first to note the Air Force has shelved plans to buy another Air Force Two aircraft.

"The C-32 Executive Transport Recapitalization program was intended to replace the aging C-32A aircraft fleet," according to the Research, Development,Test and Evaluation Budget Item Justification for the program.

Instead, remaining funding for the C-32 program was recently "applied to the evaluation and maturation of advanced high speed transport scale aircraft," the budget request states.

The Pentagon last year awarded three companies contracts to begin prototyping a supersonic aircraft that could someday carry the president and other officials around the world in half the time.

In August 2020, the service's Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate awarded a $1 million small business innovation research phase II contract to Exosonic, a start-up aerospace company, to begin the design and development of a low-boom executive airlift concept. That same month, the Air Force awarded Hermeus Corp., another start-up developing Mach 5 commercial aircraft, a $1.5 million Other Transaction Authority Phase II contract to begin research on how it could modify its commercial prototype to fit the military's VIP fleet.

And a month later, Aerospace company Boom Supersonic received an innovation research contract for an undisclosed amount from the service.

The projects are still years away from becoming reality.

Boom Supersonic signed a 15-aircraft purchase deal with United Airlines last week for its supersonic aircraft -- at $200 million a piece -- to be commercially ready by 2029 at the earliest.

How the technology will be used or applied to the military is yet to be determined. Until then, the C-32 -- flying since 1998 -- will press on, officials have said.

"[Recapitalizing the C-32 is] not on the table right now," Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, head of Air Mobility Command, told reporters in February.

"The C-32 is a very capable aircraft," she said, adding that the planes receive incremental but necessary upgrades to their command and control systems "to ensure that our senior leaders remain connected at all times."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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