Welcome aboard Air Force One

March 5, 2009

Larry Downing is a Reuters senior staff photographer assigned to the White House. He shares that duty with three other staff photographers. He has lived in Washington since 1977 and has been assigned to cover the White House , including flying aboard Air Force One, since 1978. President Barack Obama is the sixth president Larry has photographed.

Only two identical aircraft exist in the world which both share the same high-level function. They mirror one another precisely except for the numeric identifier on the tail. One reads 28000, the other 29000.
They’re as sleek as they are majestic. Anticipation runs high when either travels and both are red carpet worthy. They are concealed around-the-clock in a protective cocoon while being constantly pampered at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

“Use of Deadly Force is Authorized” inside the security perimeter ringing around the outermost tips of their wings, and absolutely no one is allowed to enter without permission.

However, the moment the President of the United States, or POTUS, steps aboard, the aircraft immediately transforms from a mild-mannered Boeing 747 passenger jet into an aviation ambassador for the might of the United States, carrying one of the most powerful men in the world to any destination he chooses; all the while in complete luxury.

Welcome aboard Air Force One.

It’s America’s magic carpet and it floats freely through the clouds under a veil of secrecy while transporting essential elements of the White House inside a secure “bubble” to any corner of the world. Surprisingly, there’s an operating room with a doctor in case of a medical emergency and a protective armada of U.S. warplanes shadows its every movement.

Air Force One is the ultimate military jet transport with a simple, yet singular mission; to serve the needs of the President of the United States. Only the president, his family, invited guests, select White House staff, armed Secret Service agents and members of a small press pool are allowed as passengers during flight.

Even the president’s pets are treated as royalty. President George W. Bush used to ferry his dogs and cat back and forth on every trip to his central Texas ranch in Crawford. One of his dogs, Barney, gained a local following after the much publicized biting of a Reuters’ reporter at the White House.

Bush also liked to use a special mountain bike when riding, so it was necessary for an aide to load it onto the back of the aircraft for his use on arrival, just in case. An “Air Force One Travel Pool” always accompanies the president when he’s on the jet.

It’s the tightest and most prestigious of all White House press pools, just 13members total with rotating representatives from each of the disciplines of journalism. These “poolers” are present in all presidential motorcades, on all helicopter movements (but never aboard Marine One), and are housed overnight in the president’s 5-star hotel when his travels take him out of town or country. Reuters assigns a wire service correspondent and a news photographer to travel on board during all presidential travel.

Armed military police and trained dogs make sure no one goes near Air Force One without a complete security vetting process. All personnel assigned to the squadron have a top secret clearance and, in Air Force-speak, “a need to know” before working on the aircraft. All press and their equipment are thoroughly sniffed, scanned and searched before being issued an additional U.S. Secret Service credential which allows him or her to walk on the tarmac towards the jet. That pass is changed by a Secret Service agent on every travel segment of a trip.

Wearing different press credentials is a daily part of White House travel.

The “security sweep” at Andrews Air Force Base involves no less than ten different challenges to each member of the press pool at the beginning of travel. Starting with manifesting by the White House, security continues through elements of the U.S. Air Force, TSA, U.S. Secret Service (both Uniformed Division and Presidential Protective Division), explosive ordinance experts, bomb-sniffing dogs, and finally, Air Force One’s own armed bouncers, their exclusive security force.

Only then are you allowed to board the aircraft using the rear stairs. The front steps belong only the president. That tradition was lost somehow on Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich when he complained to the press of having to use the rear steps after flying as the president’s guest.

Air Force One offers much more than your father’s military transport ever could… Most veterans’ memories of military travel aren’t fond ones. Circumstances made military travel reminiscent of the migratory adventures discovered inside a John Steinbeck novel; tired vagabonds hitching rides inside the wooden boxcars of the steel freight trains while chasing their tumbleweed dreams across the flats of west Texas. GI’s have always been exposed to conditions like those dust bowl hobos of the early 1900’s.

Even by today’s standards military travel is less than glamorous.

Last summer, while former first lady Laura Bush rode in comfort inside her luxury trailer strapped to the floor of a C-17 transport jet, White House staff, Secret Service and press members were left outside in the cold…literally. Frostbite awaits anyone who falls asleep on the steel floor of that particular aircraft without making sensible precautions. It’s a biting cold at 37,000 feet.

This picture was taken during that 2008 secret visit to Afghanistan after seven frigid hours of flight.

Guests on Air Force One are treated in comforting fashion. Service is reminiscent of the attention passengers received during the dawn of commercial airline travel. The seats are large and recline far enough back to sleep comfortably on long flights. No meals are pre-packaged or sealed in plastic bags and nothing is served from an airline cart; instead meals are cooked fresh by Air Force cooks in the jet’s large flight kitchen and then served on Air Force One’s own china. Full meals and desserts are cooked and created by hand in-flight. The press cabin also offers a large library of movies with comfortable headsets.

Before returning to Andrews Air Force Base the stewards pass out the most prized of all White House travel souvenirs…The Presidential M&M’s. They are exclusive to Air Force One and are limited edition. Each box has the Presidential Seal on its front and the autograph of the current president embossed below it. President Barack Obama’s M&M’s are eagerly anticipated and are due out in late March 2009.

Each passenger later receives a large flight certificate from the White House, signed by the presidential pilot, indicating that they flew as a “Guest of the President” aboard Air Force One. It resembles an undergraduate degree from an American university. Air Force One’s on-time record is perfect and no one has ever filed a claim for lost luggage. The aircraft commander prides himself on one simple fact… you can set your watch to his scheduled arrival time. He’s right!

Only once in recent history has Air Force One been delayed beyond the commander’s control. That incident occurred in the 1990’s when President Bill Clinton insisted on bringing a Beverly Hills stylist out to the readied aircraft before take-off while it sat on the airport’s tarmac in Los Angeles. He wanted to experience a $200 “Christophe” hair treatment. Commercial aircraft waited patiently to take off during the airport’s mandatory Air Force One ramp-freeze while Clinton received the cut.

The nickname “Hair Force One” grew out of that exclusive appointment.

News photographers are allowed to work “under the wing” for all arrivals and all departures of the president. (Photography from behind the main wing is discouraged. The trailing edge of the jet’s wing supports cutting-edge electronic gadgetry not found on commercial aircraft.)

Once aboard, the press pool is instructed to remain inside the designated press cabin at all times. No movement outside of the area is allowed without a White House staff escort and is monitored by the Secret Service agents sitting in the adjacent cabin. Photography is allowed only during “on camera” briefings inside that press cabin.

Air Force One is as much an official backdrop for news photography as is the White House. The exterior colors are visually hypnotic. Every angle is eye candy. First lady Jackie Kennedy chose it all when she resided at the White House.

One of my favorite pictures of President George W. Bush is his boarding the aircraft after a visit to New Orleans on a very hot, sweaty night following Hurricane Katrina. A simple picture…yet, it says a lot. It would be nothing without the majesty of the aircraft.

No news picture will ever top the one taken aboard by White House photographer Cecil Stoughton on the return flight from a bloody visit to Dallas in November 1963 shortly after President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead. As LBJ was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States, the former first lady stood by his side with her dead husband’s blood still on her jacket. His body rode home quietly in the cabin of the plane. This picture is from the Johnson Presidential Library and is a huge part of White House history.

That aircraft was a Boeing 707 and its tail identifier was 26000. I flew on that exact Air Force One 15 years later. It would be more than a decade after that before the 707’s would be replaced with the new pair of 747’s. 26000 is now on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Ohio.

To fly aboard Air Force One is a continuing honor and even after 31 years of White House duty, the experience still gives me goose bumps. Every flight is monumental to me.

My first flight was with President Jimmy Carter when he flew to Denver to promote the use of solar energy in residential homes in 1978. Carter’s luck always seemed to sit under a dark cloud. He was handed an umbrella as soon as he stepped off Air Force One in Colorado to keep him dry. It poured rain during the event.

I remember flying with President George H.W. Bush to Somalia to lunch with U.S. military troops on a very quick visit. As we departed Mogadishu the temperature hovered right at 100 degrees. We took off, flew north to Moscow, and arrived before midnight. The temperature in Russia was 20 degrees below zero. 120 degrees difference in less than 12 hours.

I traveled with his son twice on secret missions to Iraq. On the second trip, after the Air Force issued armored vests to each member of the traveling press moments before touching down in Baghdad, we were instructed that President George W. Bush wanted us to leave them on the ground before we left Iraq. He wanted to be sure combat soldiers in harm’s way would have the newest body armor.

Another striking memory for me was President Bill Clinton’s visit to Vietnam after the U.S. elections in 2000. While Air Force One banked into its final turn towards Hanoi, I noticed dozens of brown bomb craters lining the green countryside on our approach. The closer we flew towards the runway, the more craters I counted. U.S. Air Force pilots are quite familiar with that flight pattern. American B-52 warplanes dropped thousands of bombs over the area during the Christmas Bombing of Hanoi in 1972; all during the peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War. The next morning Clinton stood in front of a large bust of Vietnam’s wartime hero, Ho Chi Minh.

An example of the ease of travel Air Force One enjoys was during the 2005 trip of President George W. Bush to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II. After attending the somber Vatican funeral with two former U.S. President’s, Bush loaded his wife onto Air Force One and together they flew from Rome, Italy, to Waco, Texas. Imagine calling a travel agent and requesting that same non-stop service?

Air Force One earns its wings daily during the busy travel schedule of the last year of any president’s Administration. He schedules the entire year traveling to say goodbye to anyone who will join him for lunch.

I remember President Bill Clinton’s final journeys to India, Africa, Asia, Europe. Bush’s goodbye exodus was equally long. In 2008 White House travel took me to: Thailand, Korea, the Beijing Olympics, Israel (twice), the Palestinian Territory, Saudi Arabia (twice), Afghanistan (with the first lady), Slovenia, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

My only complaint is that we DON’T get Air Force One frequent flyer miles…

For a portfolio of Larry’s work click here.

72 comments

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Dear Larry, I’d like to buy this picture, but I can’t find it online. Can you tell me what the photo number is or something? Thanks!!! Ben http://www.time.com/time/politics/whiteh ouse/photos/0,27424,1882378,00.html

Posted by Ben Briggs | Report as abusive

(Because my company manufactured the bag!)

Posted by Ben Briggs | Report as abusive

Mr. Downing, thanks for taking the time to post this! It’s one of the more in-depth and visually-rich Reuters photo blog pieces I’ve read in a while.

A very enjoyable history and tour of one of Air Force One. Many thanks for sharing your photographs and words.

Posted by Jim Street | Report as abusive

A very interesting article – many thanks. I think Reuters should publish more of these articles from its global correspondents.

Posted by K Manchester | Report as abusive

Larry, Great story line and history in this blog. You guys always seem to catch priceless moments with your photos. Keep up the good work and always stay true to 3POX1

Posted by 3PoX1 | Report as abusive

Great article and very inspiring. Makes you almost feel like your there…wish there were more pictures. The plane is huge especially next to all the people. What a privilege to fly with so many Presidents.

[...] Senior Reuters photographer Larry Downing has a slick look, through words and pictures, at life aboard Air Force One. He’s been flying the friendly presidential skies for 31 years – it’s a cool [...]

What would an oldman who has survived a liver translant, a weight loss of over 300 pounds (no typo), and is a full-time college student(dean’s list), have to do to get a chance to see or experience this airplane close up just once before he passes on?

Great job as usual. Harold

very nice plane, looks like a lot of people involved. how much of our money is he wasting every time he wants to give a speech?

Posted by doug Mitchek | Report as abusive

I heard that JFK was transported back in his presidential suite of the plane rather than the belly of the plane.

Posted by Folkert M. | Report as abusive

Thanks Folkert M., we have corrected the text to say cabin of the plane.

Posted by Corinne Perkins | Report as abusive

Larry,Thanks for this interesting look at our nations’ pride and joy. I toured Air Force One at both the Reagan and Bush libraries, it is indeed an impressive airplane. I’ve always wanted to attend a White House dinner & now I’ve added: “Flight on Air Force One” to my list of things to do. You have been a fortunate man indeed.

Perhaps during tough economic times such as these…they should cut down on some of the luxury features on Air Force One. Like those fancy fresh-cooked meals for everyone on board. It will probably not save much, but it will be a great symbolic gesture showing that the President and the White House are not wasting people’s money on unnecessary luxuries during tough economic times when people are losing jobs and having a hard time making ends meet or putting enough food on the table to feed their families. Perhaps instead of those luxurious meals on board…they could donate the money saved (from not having those fancy meals) to feed the homeless and hungry in D.C.Anyway, it’s just an idea.

Posted by R | Report as abusive

This was the only news article I read today that didn’t make me hate the rest of the universe. It was interesting, informational, and I had never heard that little bit about the first Bush asking you all to leave your vests. That was very thoughtful of him.

Posted by GL | Report as abusive

What a wonderful write-up to come across, very impressed at how well the President and all who travel with him are protected.Loved all the pictures, wish there were more.T.F.

One of the best blog posts I have ever read by a Reuters Photographer I really enjoyed it. Best news I have read all day.But Larry I don’t think you have enough credentials to get on the plane yet. he he he!

it wasnt the 1st Bush; it was the 2nd Bush, George W, that left the vests for the soldierskelly

[...] Welcome aboard Air Force One – Ein Fotograf, seit ewig Begleiter der US-Präsidenten, erzählt vom Alltag in der Air Force One und Co. [...]

Larry,DD214 … you will forever be my brother because we share more that just being WHNPhotgs. You honor us and we are better for having you in our life. Thanks for sharing, then again, it’s in your nature to do so.Your BrotherMannie

Hmmm…the only time it was late was when Clinton got his haircut? How about the time in 1998 that Air Force One slid off the runway in Champaign, IL and the backup plane had to be deployed?http://edition.cnn.com/ALLPOLIT ICS/1998/01/28/wheel/

Posted by JA3 | Report as abusive

Very impressive aircraft and a good detail about Air Force One and the pictures of presidents. I can only wish to fly someday with the President. Keep up the good work Larry.- RK

Posted by RK | Report as abusive

uber depressing.

Posted by alex | Report as abusive

Great article. BTW, what’s wrong with flying commercial and who are the suckers paying for all this ?

Please find to time read this. You’ll find this article interesting as it was relates in depth.Regards,Marjorie

Hmm, where are the photos? Mostly fluff! As usual. Is this CNN?

Posted by Rick | Report as abusive

How about some pix of the quarters and offices of the President? Where is the Presidential table service? I am not interested in a special taxpayer paid for box of Presidential M&Ms. It is not so interesting to see where the workers work, what military transports look like, or the dead Pope John Paul [good man that he was]. I can only assume that your reporters were not allowed to see the interesting parts of AF1. That will teach Reuters to make a bigger campaign contribution to O next time.

Posted by Al | Report as abusive

[...] AIR FORCE ONE BLOG – by Larry Downing Blogroll [...]

exellent good stuff thank you

How atrocious that a country would display such excess after causing massive decline in financial confidence throughout the developed world with their deception and failed banking/financial system.Maybe loose the “Presidential M&M’s”Also I have never seen inside the RAAF jet that carries our PM, Governor General – and most other parliamentarians… I have also never seen a picture of the RAF and can not imagine the British PM would be treating the press to signed boiled lollies….

Posted by Will | Report as abusive

Air Force One is Twins. One 28000, the other 29000.I see. They’re as peaceful as they are angels.POTUS, Obama is Gabriel.

Posted by JInil,Hur | Report as abusive

To all the people that say this plane is a waste of money and resources……He is the damn president of the United States! One of the most important people on the planet.Give the man a plane at least. He deserves every bit of that beauty.

Posted by TheJMac | Report as abusive

this is really great and honor of one to fly with a person who is Commander in Chief and Most Powerful Man in World.really great stuff

Posted by Avtar | Report as abusive

Even more interesting is the fleet of cargo jets that haul the vehicles, helicopters, etc. The US prez won’t be flying commercial, that comment was so quaint.

Posted by Carl Mullar | Report as abusive

Seems familiar. A lot like the old Soviet ways. The economy is in ruins, the rot has set in from the inside but the show must go on.

Posted by andy | Report as abusive

Great article and pictures.Thanks Larry.

Who cares, I’ll take Southwest Airlones any day

Posted by TIM MEE | Report as abusive

[...] on Air Force One with every president since Jimmy Carter. In his post today on the Reuters blog, Welcome To Air Force One, Downing shares lots of photos he’s taken inside and outside the jet. He describes what the [...]

I regularly fly with the Canadian Prime Minister on his travels and the experience could not be more different from this. He uses a 30 year old Airbus A-300 plane which is painted a dull military gray. The interior is deeply uninspiring. The seats — in a 2-4-2 pattern — are old, small and uncomfortable. The meal service is average. Up front, the PM and his staff sit in the equivalent of 1970s club class seats, which barely recline at all. He has a single bed made up for him in a small separate cabin. The plane can barely make it across the Atlantic without having to refuel and when he went to Australia a few years ago, it took more than 24 hours, thanks to the three refuelling stops. I would love, just once, to be able to travel on board Air Force One.

Posted by D | Report as abusive

Air Force One is a beautiful enduring symbol the United States. May it carry its occupants in safety and comfort always.

Posted by Patriot | Report as abusive

Very interesting article. Wonder how much it costs to fly? Like 9 miles? Like all over the country and now to Turkey while we burn from the inside out? The planes should be grounded til BO gets the economy going again like he promised.

Posted by amn | Report as abusive

I think the critics are just mad ‘cuz they think they deserve the same treatment, or that the President should travel the same way everybody else does. Kind of Communistic, don’t you think? We give our President an extra measure of protection, access to efficiency, and yes, we don’t keep the press (the public) away from him during those times. It’s a very special situation, in very special circumstances, treated with very special procedures. BTW, the AF1 M&M’s had George Bush’s signature on them. Check the picture again.

Posted by Expat251 | Report as abusive

We are quite amused.

Posted by devin | Report as abusive

one story we do not need, is a repetition of dallas ’63.now that we have a great man in office, he must be protected at any cost, otherwise we might fall into total anarchy.

Posted by win | Report as abusive

Very informative and balanced writing and beautiful photos. The fact most striking to me was of President GW Bush’s making certain that the vests left for our troops; I don’t remember any reporting of it at the time.As for heads of nations flying commercial airlines: in the late 50s I was sitting with my family in the coach cabin on a United flight. Shortly after take off I was invited into the first class cabin to “play Barbies” with the Nixon girls. Just regular folks, to me.

Posted by ML Falcone | Report as abusive

The Prez flies the largest business jet on the planet. He heads an operation that is important, employs 30 million people, hasn’t made a profit in 80 of the last 83 years, and makes $400,000 per year for life (plus speakers’ fees and book deals after leaving office.) Cost per mile traveled is about $25,000, all in. But beware you spendthrift business execs that make $10,000,000 a year, head an operation with 300,000 employees that produces profits (and taxes, Mr. Barney Frank!) 75 years in 85. If you fly somewhere in a corporate jet, saving four hours of shareholder’s time (about $20,000) at a cost of $100 a mile, the full might of the government propaganda machine will crush you.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

this is an egregious abuse of taxpayer moneyhow can the president criticize the chairman of Ford for flying on a private jet, when he himself is flying on this monster?if a cattle-call seat on Southwest is good enough for Larry, Moe, and Curly, it’s good enough for the ‘prez

Posted by Seven Burke | Report as abusive

To Seven Burke! where have you been for the past few years. Your country is at war and lot of people would want to hurt your president! That is why it is required for him to travel with Air Force One! Its main objective is the security of the president. If I were you I would check out Air Force One in Wikipedia to learn what the function of the plane is!

Posted by Peter | Report as abusive

Splendid and really ONE in the world. But it also looks not so comfy without enough beds.

Posted by Wang Xu | Report as abusive

A well written story.

WoW! What a great post here! Awesome work! Thank you,Fred

With millions out of work, the worst economy in decades, billions earmarked for more deficit spending and a President who has a very public disdain for the wealthy, I am more than amused at the irony. How much does a box of presidential M&M’s go for these days? Maybe we could auction them off on Ebay to help pay off the debt?

Posted by Hosewee | Report as abusive

absolutely brilliant photos and article by a brilliant photographer

Posted by Steve Holland | Report as abusive

Superb…….fascinating.Thank youSusan

Posted by Susan Turner | Report as abusive

Larry,Great report, yet I couldn’t help but notice that on the “frigidly cold” military aircraft, passengers had left their jackets on the seats, and didn’t even bother unfolding the blankets on their laps. Either they were tough passengers, or perhaps overly dramatic reporting.

Posted by Jay | Report as abusive

Great! Does NASA have a special space shuttle for the US president to escape from earth in case he couldn’t deliver what he promised during his election campaign?

Posted by Ram | Report as abusive

Interesting reading and great pictures. I wonder if you pass on to the president that emails have been sent to him via the WhiteHouse.gov page and all are unanswered.Again Great job

Posted by Larry | Report as abusive

Just wonderful :)

Posted by LZ | Report as abusive

[...] Welcome aboard Air Force One – Larry Downing, Reuters senior staff photographer assigned to the White House share information about his work together with some great photographs. [...]

A great story with great pictures. Bummer about the flyer miles, but we’re talking M&Ms man. What’s not to love?!

Posted by Spike | Report as abusive

win, at this time in his presidency bush had higher ratings than obama ,so lets keep “the great man in office” till he actually achieves something.as an outsider it appears at present, that pelosi is leading the democratic party.every important bill, he is passing the buck and turning it over to her,now she is suggesting another spend bill.i wonder if she had any intention of informing him first?he din,t seem to know any thing about it,according to gibbs.

Posted by brian lee | Report as abusive

My son-in-law is one of the Reuters photographers and we are very proud of him. The article was very impressive.

Posted by RICHARD F. DOUGHTY | Report as abusive

Nailed it! Great story brother! Thanks for the insight and imagery.

Posted by The Intern | Report as abusive

Great photos Larry! Thanks for highlighting some of those dedicated professionals involved in preparing, securing and flying Air Force One and taking care of the President’s guest. What a team effort! You know I’m especially proud of the AF folks and their role in this unique mission. Take care!EdEdward Cole, CMSgt, USAF, Ret

Posted by Ed Cole | Report as abusive

What a great story! It echoes my one single flight on AF1 in Decenber 2008, an honor and a privilege like no other, never to be forgotten.

Posted by Proud American | Report as abusive

[...] out this Reuters blog post by Larry Downing. These documentary photographs shed light on some of the mystery surrounding [...]

[...] This blog post shows Air Force One and it’s rich history as a usual transport for the president of the United States. [...]

Hi Larry, It is a great story. This is photo editor of a weekly magazine in China, and we want to publish some images from your blogs. Could you let me know the ID of the image about a soldier prepares food for the passenger. I couldn’t find in the database of Reuters. It is urgent, hope you could help me.

Posted by Crystal Hei | Report as abusive

Hi Larry,great storyVietnam’s famous electronic newspaper vnexpress.net translated and posted the story at the link:http://vnexpress.net/GL/The-gioi/Tu -lieu/2009/03/3BA0CCFE/Kham Nguyen, REUTERS HANOI

Posted by Kham H Nguyen | Report as abusive

Nice article!Thank you!

Larry, Excellent story about your travels on AF1. Who is the reporter sleeping during the in flight briefing?David

Great story and very interesting for a french curious guy like me.

Great story wht some great insight of the Air Force One Travles…Definitely a bummer on the flyer miles…

Posted by Juan | Report as abusive

Hey great story really lets the world know what it’s like to travel on AF1. Next story should be about traveling on the press charters and campaign planes during the pervious years! Make sure you talk about the highjinks that went on. Or about covering news stories in the DC. area.

Posted by mark Reinstein | Report as abusive

Larry, I am a friend of David Burke. Thank you again for the Presidential M&M’s from Air Force One. I will always remember your kindness.Thank you, Mark Shinn

Posted by Mark Shinn | Report as abusive

Was it a coincidence that I saw the movie “Air Force One” yesterday (on the telly) and today I stumbled upon this site.Any way the statements made above and the information from the movie has increased my knowlegde about the special carrier.By the way your pics are real good.

Posted by Joe Zach | Report as abusive

Is the news media required to travel with the president at all times? What are the exceptions?

Posted by Ted Anderson | Report as abusive

I have worked as a Security Officer for Boeing for 30yrs. It is an Honor to have worked on this Air Force One program for the last 22yrs.

Posted by Herb Smith | Report as abusive