Air Force One
With the current Flying White Houses growing long in the tooth after serving for more than 30 years, their replacements are taking shape in a hangar in San Antonio, Texas. (Image: National Geographic/Renegade Pictures)

National Geographic Film Examines New Air Force One

Workers are replacing thousands of miles of wiring with metal-armored cables, to shield against electromagnetic interference from a nuclear blast.

With the current pair of Boeing 747s known as Air Force One now passing three decades in service, their replacements are undergoing the extensive modification needed for them to assume the role of the airborne transport for the President of the United States. To document the process, the National Geographic Society has produced a film featured on the Nat Geo Channel.

Titled The New Air Force One: Flying Fortress, the hour-long program details the evolution and some of the history of the aircraft that have carried the call sign Air Force One and weaves this narrative around an actual mission flown by the former administration. As the narrator repeatedly informs the audience, National Geographic’s camera crews were given unprecedented access aboard the aircraft and were able to interview the crew and staff about their jobs and the limitations they face operating and maintaining the 30-year-old jets. A crew chief explains how parts needed to maintain the two aircraft in "like-new” condition are becoming difficult to obtain as few 747-200s remain in service and some vendors are no longer supporting them.

All those assigned to work in the airplane—from the front office, with its analog instruments to the cramped galleys and medical bay, which was not designed to accommodate today’s diagnostic and therapeutic equipment—express their excitement about the promised improvements.

The legacy 747s (or VC-25As, as they are known under their official Air Force designation) were first used by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, and the film includes video of his first tour of the aircraft. After his death In 2018, that same aircraft carried his body from Washington, D.C., where he lay in state, to his home state of Texas, where he was interred.

The two replacement aircraft—based on the 747-8, the latest and final passenger version of the four-engine jumbo jet—are due to enter service in 2024; but before then, they are being remanufactured to convert them from standard passenger aircraft into the Flying White House.

At the Boeing Defense Facility in San Antonio, the two jumbo jets—which were originally white tails stored in the desert after an airline’s deal with the airframer went sour—are being modified in the “Big Texas” hangar, the largest freestanding high bay hangar in the world. Among the work being done is the complete removal of the interiors, including many systems. Workers are replacing thousands of miles of wiring with metal-armored cables to shield against electromagnetic interference from a nuclear blast; they're also installing military-grade communications, encryption, and defense systems.

To power all this equipment, the new Air Force Ones will require the installation of larger, more potent generators, requiring the removal of the four next-generation GE engines (which—despite the narrator stating that each consists of more than a million parts— actually contain about 10,000). While those engines are 16 percent more efficient than their predecessors, they generate 17 percent more thrust—39,200 pounds more, according to the film, which will extend the range of the aircraft by 1,000 miles, to 8,800 miles.

The new 747s also have cranked wingtips, which help increase their speed closer to near Mach 1, while improving the airplanes' short-field performance.

At 18 feet longer than its predecessor, the 747-8 is the world’s longest passenger aircraft, and due to its extended upper deck, the new Air Force Ones will have 5,000 square feet more room than the current presidential transports. That will allow more space and improved capabilities for areas such as the two galleys, which will allow for the preparation of 2,000 meals from provisions loaded in the U.S., and the medical bay, which will feature state-of-the-art equipment to allow for the highest level of care, including emergency surgery on the president, the first family, and others aboard. Even the communications suite will be enlarged to accommodate four operators, rather than the three currently on duty at all times.

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The new flight deck will be fully digital and will include the latest military GPS units, an improved instrument landing system enabling the aircraft to land regardless of the weather, and defense system controls. The modernizations will allow the on-duty cockpit crew to be halved to just two flight officers.

One of the major parts of the conversion requires structural modification of the airframe to accommodate large boarding doors and attached airstairs forward and aft. As the program describes, before any cutting into the airframe could take place, the entire aircraft (all 350,000 pounds of it, without the engines and interior) had to be supported by a specially built hydraulic cradle, which precisely measured and relieved strain, to prevent any warping or twisting. Additionally, dozens of holes were cut in the aircraft skin to accommodate the installation of any top-secret defense and advanced communications systems.

Those enhanced communications systems will allow the chief executive to address the nation from the aircraft, an ability that wasn’t available on 9/11, former President George W. Bush recounted to the National Geographic team.

The VC-25B program is expected to cost $5.3 billion and require two years of flight testing.