““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
You know Air Force One? Meet Two, Three, Four, Five...
You've probably heard of or seen Air Force One-even if only in a movie or on TV-and know that it carries the President of the U.S. and his staff. But did you know that the Air Force also operates 15 other business jets that are used to transport high-profile government officials, including members of Congress?
In addition to the pair of Boeing 747s that take turns serving as Air Force One (the aircraft bears the sobriquet only when the President is aboard), the fleet includes five Gulfstream IIIs, four GVs, two 737s and four 757s. All have been modified to incorporate such things as specialized communications and flight equipment and VIP staterooms. Government agencies reimburse the Air Force for use of the fleet at hourly rates ranging from $5,262 for the GIIIs to $18,338 for the 737s.
The 89th Airlift Wing, based at Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Md., is responsible for running the military's largest executive flight department. The fleet carries out more than 6,500 missions and logs nearly 12,000 flight hours each year. All aircraft, including the two that serve as Air Force One, are housed and maintained at Andrews, just 10 miles southeast of the White House.
The wing employs 80 pilots and 89 flight attendants who are handpicked for this mission from the greater Air Force pool. Pilots with fewer than 2,500 hours of flight time won't even be considered, and most have several thousand hours of experience flying fighter jets or other military aircraft. Though their tailored blue business suits and uniforms might suggest otherwise, these people are all battle-ready, field-trained and prepared to defend their aircraft and passengers on a moment's notice.
While the thought of government-sponsored high-end business jets might make some taxpayers cringe, 89th Airlift Wing spokesman Capt. Herbert W. McConnell said the service is necessary because the aircraft offer security equipment that a public charter operator couldn't provide. "There are more requirements since September 11," he said. "We fly the Speaker of the House, whereas before we did not. There are more reasons to fly with us now."
The 89th Airlift Wing receives its orders from the Pentagon, which assigns aircraft based on customer requirements and aircraft availability, with the larger jets generally reserved for overseas missions. In February 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the subject of some controversy over her use of one of the wing's GVs to travel between Washington and her home in California. Her predecessor had used the smaller and less expensive GIII. McConnell wouldn't comment on Pelosi's use of the GV, but said sometimes weather or other operational concerns justify the use of larger aircraft.
Pilots and flight attendants assigned to the business jet fleet undergo regular recurrent training, just like their civilian peers. Gulfstream pilots complete their simulator training at what's called the Executive Airlift Training Center at Andrews Air Force Base. Flight attendants working on the same airplanes train with FlightSafety International in Savannah, Ga., while the Boeing crews train with Delta Airlines. Everyone, however, must endure the same military survival training that all Air Force pilots and other crew members do.
"It's basically two weeks out in the field [to prepare you for a crash] behind enemy lines," said Chief Master Sgt. Brian Smith, who manages the flight attendants in the 89th Airlift Wing and is a former Air Force One flight attendant. "The water-survival training was pretty intense. I remember the fire hose of ice-cold water on me. That was a memorable experience."
Unlike most of their civilian peers, military flight attendants in the 89th Airlift Wing prepare, cook and serve all the meals that are consumed onboard their aircraft, which Smith said greatly reduces the possibility of contamination or sabotage.
"Part of our job is safety and sanitation," he explained. "It's not that we don't trust anybody, but our goal is to prepare all the food. Either we prep it at our kitchen and freeze it for later use or we prepare it on the plane. We don't use food purveyors."
A few days prior to a flight, Smith's staff is notified of the requirements and sets about preparing a menu for passengers and crew. While Smith admitted the meals might not compare in creativity or quality with what an expensive caterer could provide, flight attendants do receive culinary training and are able to put together respectable in-flight meals.
"Omelets for 50 are manageable, but eggs to order might not work," Smith said. "We're real flexible. On the small jets, they are very creative."
The Gulfstreams typically carry only one flight attendant, but the Boeings fly with as many as six. "We're also serving the crew, and we bring security, flight engineers-many more crewmembers than on a private flight," Smith said. "The business of the federal government is 24/7. When you're out flying with [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice, it's nonstop. They're working speeches; they're working the phones, on the Internet sending messages back and forth. They don't seem to have much time to watch in-flight movies. We try to coordinate the meals, but on the big jets, we have the media on board, so there are media conferences. We just try to keep beverages coming out. When they hit the deck, they need to get going. Our goal is to ensure they get first-class service from the nose to the tail."
Col. James S. Wolcott, operations group commander for the 89th Airlift Wing, said the military's business case for using the jets is similar to that of many large corporations. "Some of the advantages that you find in corporate aircraft you find in transporting our nation's leaders," Wolcott said. "It saves their time versus flying on the airlines. Security is obviously a factor and has become more of a factor in the last few years.
"Our mission has evolved here from just getting a VIP from point A to B safely and on time," Wolcott added. "We have a lot of communications equipment on these aircraft that allows [passengers] to work. As they transition from their office to the airplane, it's invisible. A well-executed diplomatic mission can save fighting missions down the road."