Q&A: Author on U.S. Presidential Jet Air Force One

David Braun
National Geographic News
May 29, 2003

White House correspondent Ken Walsh has flown on Air Force One more than 200 times. He talks about his book, Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes, and what he has learned about the aircraft and those who used it for political, diplomatic, and personal ends.

There have been several books and film documentaries about Air Force One. How's yours different?

My book about Air Force One is different from past efforts in several ways. For one thing, it is not just about the aircraft—which was the main focus of other projects about Air Force One. Instead, I looked at the aircraft and at the special habitats that the 12 "flying presidents" have created for themselves on board. This is really a book about people, not hardware, and I have tried to provide a unique insight into life aboard Air Force One that readers will enjoy—all presented in an extremely readable, engaging style.

My access was extraordinary. I have covered the White House for U.S. News & World Report since 1986 and I know many of the insiders whose stories made this book come alive. For example, I interviewed five of the six living presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush) for the book—President Reagan could not participate because of his Alzheimer's Disease—and spoke to more than 100 other officials, including stewards, pilots, key advisers, and presidential friends who have traveled aboard the aircraft.

You say that the most dramatic day in the history of Air Force One was September 11, 2001. Can you tell our readers why this is so.

The events of September 11, 2001 showed, first of all, that Air Force One could be an effective airborne command center in a national emergency. This premise had never been fully tested before.

President Bush also demonstrated that he could be an effective commander in chief. There had been considerable concern about this, and many Americans had been wondering if he was up to the job. On 9/11, he erased most people's doubts.

The drama of that day was clear from the moment the first hijacked airliner hit the World Trade Center. It was the worst terrorist attack in American history. Amid the horror, no one, not even the president, could be sure what would happen next.

How and why does Air Force One magnify the strengths and weaknesses of the Presidents, bringing out their true personalities?

Air Force One brings out the true personalities of the Presidents in a variety of ways. The presidents themselves and many people who have flown with them told me that spending endless hours in the aircraft at close quarters intensifies camaraderie and candor, and strengthens the bonds of friendship. In addition, Presidents find Air Force One a refuge because it is free from many of the protocols, routines, and meetings that dominate life in the West Wing. Finally, Presidents spend so much time on Air Force One with trusted friends and advisers that they can't keep their guard up for very long. As a result, on Air Force One we see them as they really are.

Air Force One, you write, impresses the public. The Presidents like to use it as a backdrop when they're campaigning. It's a political tool used to dispense favors because some people think it is more of a privilege to ride on the President's plane than to visit him in the White House. Why does Air Force One have this effect on people?

The mystique of Air Force One exists for a number of reasons. For starters, it is a very impressive-looking aircraft, distinctive in many ways. Few Americans have been aboard; no public tours are allowed of the planes (in contrast to the White House). Most of Air Force One is also off limits to the media. This lack of access creates considerable curiosity about the planes and what the presidents do when they are aboard. And some very powerful images are associated with Air Force One, especially the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson aboard the president's plane a few hours after President Kennedy was assassinated and, of course, the events of 9/11.

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