National Geographic Lifts Veil on Air Force One

National Geographic News
Updated December 15, 2003
Celebrate the first century of aviation with a
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Force One,
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Until Franklin D. Roosevelt, no U.S. President traveled by air while in office. World War II changed that, and since then an executive aircraft has been an indispensable tool of the Presidency.

From that first hush-hush mission of World War II to the remarkable role played by the Presidential aircraft in the national emergency of September 11, 2001—,and most recently, the dramatic landing at Baghdad Airport in conditions of total darkness for a Presidential Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops in Iraq—the "Flying White House" has assumed a mystique unlike that of any other aircraft.

But keeping the President safe from assassins and in command of the government and U.S. armed services at all times, anywhere in the world, requires a huge security and support staff—and a flying fortress as secure and technologically equipped as the Oval Office itself.

As the Presidency evolved, so has Air Force One, as the presidential aircraft is officially known. The President's personal aircraft has become larger, faster, and a potent symbol of political and diplomatic power.

Crammed with secret military technology, including anti-missile defense and encrypted communications, Air Force One has remained largely off limits to news cameras. A television documentary shot for National Geographic offers a rare glimpse at the facilities on board the custom-built Boeing 747 and the many people who keep the executive plane aloft.

"As you can imagine, the security is pretty ferocious on Air Force One," said Peter Schnall, the producer-director for Air Force One. "And yet, we were allowed to see things that nobody else has seen, and were allowed to film things that nobody else has ever filmed. And in such situations, things are still kept secret, classified, and for the right reasons."

Former Presidents Recollect

The documentary offers rare footage of the inside of Air Force One, from the cockpit and communications room to the presidential suite and various meeting rooms.

The film follows an actual journey made by President Clinton on a swing through several cities in the United States. Details of the intricate planning and preparations for a presidential journey are revealed.

Viewers witness many of the myriad functions involved in any presidential travel, as when the Secret Service sends out advance teams, tests and seals the aircraft fuel, dispatches agents to check runways for debris, issues "orders to shoot" if there is a threat during the President's boarding or disembarking, and travels ahead in separate aircraft to deliver the President's bullet-proof limousine and an arsenal of small arms in case of an ambush.

The documentary describes how all the U.S. armed services are involved in moving the President around the country. It focuses on the officer who carries the "football," or briefcase that contains the launch codes and authority for the President to launch nuclear-tipped missiles in the event of an attack against the United States.

Former crew members and passengers, including several ex-Presidents, share anecdotes about life on board.

Daily Routines

Two kitchens in Air Force One turn out gourmet meals, including birthday cakes when needed. The President may sleep in a full-size bed, relax on a sofa, take a shower, or work behind a desk.

A special communications compartment enables the President and other officials to make encrypted phone calls to anywhere on Earth. During the film viewers learn that in one such call, former President Clinton called a friend who was driving on a freeway.

Former Presidents Carter, Bush, and Clinton have fond memories of Air Force One, Schnall said.

"The plane, to them, really represents a place where they can be themselves, relax and get away from the demands of the White House and the Oval Office," Schnall explained. "Former President Bush would sometimes go to Andrews Air Force Base the night before the flight, get on board, go to sleep on the airplane, and wake up in the air."

Viewers learn that Air Force One is a powerful diplomatic and political tool that Presidents use frequently to influence votes in Congress or to impress international allies and foes. It may be the hardest perk for Presidents to give up when they leave office.

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