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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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

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

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