The New Air Force One: What We Know So Far

The United States Air Force is getting some new presidential transport. While the VC25Bs, which will be designated Air Force One when the president is onboard, won’t be delivered until 2024, some details about the upgrade are already in the public domain. Here’s what we know about the replacement Air Force One so far.

What can we expect from the new Air Force One? Photo: Getty Images

Air Force One is getting an update

It’s probably the most recognizable airplane in the world, and it’s getting an update. The two VC25As which have primarily taken on the role of Air Force One over the last couple of decades are set to be replaced. The US Air Force is sticking with homegrown planemaker Boeing but is opting for the latest version of the Queen of the Skies, the 747-8.

While any plane carrying the president is designated Air Force One, the two aircraft most frequently assigned that callsign carry tail numbers 28000 and 29000. The pair of modified 747-200s have been carrying VIPs since 1990 and have transported five presidents and numerous high-level officials over the past 30 years.

Air Force One
Five different presidents have traveled aboard the current VC25As. Photo: The White House

These aren’t just any old 747s, however. Onboard, as well as lavishly appointed meeting rooms and guest cabins, are some of the world’s best inflight defense systems, as well as a raft of comms equipment and other modifications. With their time in service coming to an end, let’s take a look at what we know so far about the planes that will replace them – two modified 747-8s or VC25Bs.

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It’s a very expensive project

The original agreement to build a replacement fleet of Air Force One aircraft was made under the Obama administration. The Air Force selected Boeing to build a heavily modified version of its 747-8 in 2015, but in December 2016, even before his official swearing-in, Donald Trump expressed his dissatisfaction regarding the cost of the program.

Despite Mr. Trump’s threat to cancel the order, the costing for the program has been largely seen as fair. It’s not all going to Boeing either, with $2.9bn earmarked for research, development, test and evaluation, paid for through 2021. The cost also reflects the acquisition and extensive modification of two 747-8s.

Nevertheless, Trump was determined to bring the cost to heel and held numerous meetings with the then Boeing boss Dennis Muilenburg to discuss the project. In the end, the two settled on a figure of $3.9 billion. In a statement at the time, Boeing said,

“Boeing is proud to build the next generation of Air Force One, providing American presidents with a flying White House at outstanding value to taxpayers. President Trump negotiated a good deal on behalf of the American people.”

The White House claimed that President Trump’s strongarm negotiations saved the American taxpayer some $1.4bn on the original estimate of a cost of more than $5bn. However, once all the costs involved in the project are taken into account, including buying a new hangar for the planes, the cost to the Air Force will be $5.3bn, and that’s before any overruns.

Let’s face it; building two state-of-the-art flying fortresses for the most powerful people in the world to travel is was never going to be cheap. Indeed, the top-secret technical manuals, which will run to more than 100,000 pages, are costing $84 million. But what is POTUS getting for this sizeable investment?

Air Force One replacement
This could be the new look for the VC25Bs. Photo: Boeing

They will beat the old Air Force Ones out of the park

On so many measures, the new Air Force One aircraft will be superior to the originals. The current Air Force One 747s are more than 30 years old, and are based on an airframe from the 1970s, the 747-200. As such, it’s no big surprise that the replacement VC-25Bs will feature plenty of superior technology.

The new 747s are based on the most modern iteration of the type – the Boeing 747-8. This model has taken the basics of the 747-400 and beefed it up with technology from the Dreamliner, giving it a greater range, better fuel efficiency and increased passenger comfort. Let’s take a look at some of the stats side by side.

  VC25A (Boeing 747-200) VC25B (Boeing 747-8)
Range 6,735 nmi 7,730 nmi
Cruise speed .84 Mach .855 Mach
Maximum takeoff weight 833,000lb 987,000lb
Wingspan 195 ft 8 in 224 ft 5 in
Length 231 ft 10 in 250 ft 2 in

As you can see, the 747-8 will fly further, faster than the 747-200. Indeed, the 747-8 can go 1,000 nautical miles further than its predecessor, and that’s in commercial jet format. With a VIP set up and fewer people and baggage onboard, the replacement Air Force One will be able to travel huge distances across the globe without stopping.

The 747-8
The 747-8 is the longest and fastest passenger jet in operation today. Photo: Boeing

More importantly, it will go these great distances with a smaller impact on the environment. According to Boeing, per trip, the 747-8 emits 16 tons of CO2 less than the 747-200, although clearly, this depends on the length of the sector.

On the downside, reports suggest that the VC25Bs will no longer have in-air refueling capabilities. The current VC25As have a refueling coupling on the nose of the plane, meaning the president can stay airborne indefinitely if required. For whatever reason, this has not been included in the specifications of the replacement jets, probably because despite having this capability, the VC25As never actually used it.

They may well look rather different

While president Trump may not even get to fly the new Air Force One, depending on the outcome of the impending election, he was keen to put his stamp on the new planes anyway. The iconic baby blue is going out of the window by his hand, to be replaced with a more patriotic red, white and blue.

Trump Air Force One New Livery
The president’s redesign moves away from baby blue to a more patriotic color scheme. Photo: Getty Images

Trump complained that the white and blue plane was ‘too Jackie Kennedy’, which is partially true as the liveries were designed under the Kennedy administration. However, they were actually created by design legend Raymond Loewy, famed for his world-renowned industrial creations and logos, including work for Coca-Cola, Exxon and the US Postal Service.

Regardless of where the design came from, Trump believes it’s time for a change. He was snapped by ABC News in June last year with his concepts for the new color scheme.

While it’s yet to be seen if the final design is exactly as Trump imagined, he’s taken the step of having a scale model built in his livery, which he keeps on his desk in the Oval Office for everyone to see.

Trump Air Force One New Livery
Trump enjoys showing his model to guests in the Oval Office. Photo: Getty Images

They won’t be delivered for some time yet

There’s no cutting corners with the new Air Force Ones, and Boeing is looking to take until 2024 to complete the project. The airframes themselves have been sourced and are already at Boeing’s modification facility in Texas.

To save a bit of money on a factory-fresh 747-8, Boeing sold the Air Force two aircraft that were built for Russian airline Transaero. The airline filed for bankruptcy before the aircraft could be delivered and had been stored in California awaiting a new owner. By purchasing these unwanted planes, the Air Force saved some cash, with secretary Heather Wilson telling Bloomberg,

“We got a really good deal… I’m pleased with that.”

The aircraft were originally destined for Transaero. Photo: Alex Beltyukov via Wikimedia

The modifications are already underway but will take several years to complete. While the finer details of what’s being done to the 747-8s is highly confidential, we do know it will include:

  • Electrical power upgrades
  • A mission communication system
  • The inclusion of a medical facility
  • Installation of an executive interior
  • The addition of “autonomous ground operations capabilities”- built-in retractable airstairs so that the aircraft doesn’t need to rely on ground-based staircases
  • Defense systems such as missile warning systems, chaff dispensing systems and directional infrared countermeasures

Even if president Trump does win another term in office, the jets won’t be delivered until right at the end of his presidency. Should the project timeline slip at all, he will have left office before they arrive. All things taken into account, it’s highly unlikely that Trump will be the first president to fly on the new VC25Bs.

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