The majestic, brand new Air Force One is the aerial representation of the President of the United States. It is the winged horse on whose back Joe Biden rides like a king, as did his predecessors in office, George Bush senior, Bill Clinton, George Bush junior, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
A small flying White House, it becomes the official residence in the air of the highest dignitary of the Union when he makes official trips to third countries or long-haul domestic flights. Its appearance, with its soft blue and white colours, is known the world over, and its hardwood interior has bedrooms, offices, meeting rooms, offices, toilets, showers and armchairs to accommodate an entourage of up to 70 people.
It is packed with encrypted communications systems on all frequency bands, lined with nuclear radiation shielding panels and fitted with advanced missile warning and protection equipment to ensure the survival of the aircraft and its occupants. Everything necessary to ensure that the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet can safely and reliably exercise his senior executive role and supreme command of the US Armed Forces at all times.
The last flight of VC-25A number 28000 -which is the official code number of the plane in which Biden flew to Spain- followed the Madrid-Washington route. It took off from Torrejón air base on Thursday evening, 30 June, after the NATO summit. The luxurious aircraft is now straddling Andrews Air Force Base (Washington DC) and San Antonio (Texas), where it is undergoing costly maintenance.
But the VC-25A 28000 is nearing retirement. It is an airborne command post that has been in service for no less than 32 years since it entered service in August 1990, rising to 35 years from the time of its first flight in May 1987. Time does not pass in vain even for such a pampered aircraft and, no matter how much attention the USAF technicians devote to it, its replacement is already on its way.
The military nomenclature assigned to its relief is CV-25B, but it will keep the Air Force One radio call sign, whenever the highest authority of the American nation is on board.
It should be made clear that the VC-25B designation corresponds to not one, but two aircraft, as does the VC-25A. The four are based on the famous 747 Jumbo wide-body, twin-aisle model of the aeronautical giant Boeing. In both cases, the large industrial corporation has been and is now also the main contractor that transforms and customises conventional Jumbo passenger jets into presidential aircraft.
The credit for giving public prominence to the new Air Force Ones goes to Donald Trump himself, who took an interest in the matter just before he was sworn in as president on 20 January 2017. After defeating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the November 2016 election, Trump tweeted on 6 December: "Boeing is building a new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, over $4 billion - cancel order!
All alarm bells went off at the manufacturer. Its president at the time, Dennis Muilenburg, held several meetings with Trump, until they agreed to lower the contract from $4.4bn to $3.9bn. The corporation issued a tweet saying that "Boeing is proud to build the next generation of Air Force One, providing American presidents with a flying White House at an exceptional value to taxpayers. President Trump negotiated a good deal on behalf of the American people."
The rebate has a catch. Instead of acquiring two new-build aircraft with USAF-dictated requirements, Trump admitted to buying two second-hand, but not used, 747-8I Jumbo jets. They come from a botched Boeing contract with Russian airline Transaero. The airline filed for bankruptcy in October 2015, when two of its planes were already built. Boeing parked them in California to sell them on the second-hand market. The result: the opportunity arose and both parties won.
Trump's second step was to give the planes his personal stamp. He decided to change the white colours, the gold line and the two shades of blue that have been used on presidential planes since John F. Kennedy's term in office in the 1960s. Instead, he opted for longitudinal stripes in the same shades as the national ensign: red, white and blue. While the VC-25B programme is going ahead, the Biden Administration has scrapped the external decoration, citing problems of electromagnetic compatibility with the interior wiring.
What is the status of the two new Air Force Ones? Both are undergoing a radical modification process, which began in late February 2020 at Boeing's large factory in San Antonio, Texas. The cockpit, auxiliary power unit (APU) and all other commercial components have been removed. Major exterior structural changes have been made, opening doors and holes of different sizes and shapes to install new state-of-the-art warning, missile defence and communications systems, with encrypted National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency terminals, which will provide key data and information for flight planning.
New, more powerful, higher performance and cleaner engines have been selected and tested, providing almost 2,000 kilometres more range and enabling shorter take-offs and landings compared to the VC-25A. The transformation is in full swing, but the first CV-25B may not be received by the USAF by the end of 2024 as scheduled. The independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) identifies three main causes for more than two years of delays and a cost overrun of more than $1 billion: the pandemic, the bankruptcy of the interior outfitting subcontractor (GDC Technics) and a lack of skilled labour.
Boeing is urgently looking for engineers, technicians, quality inspectors, structural mechanics and electricians, the latter to carefully deploy the more than 320 kilometres of shielded, coaxial and fibre-optic cables that each aircraft carries. The main recruitment problem is the high level of security and qualification required by the defence department to admit new personnel. A minimum of 10 years' experience on VIP aircraft is required, as well as proof of a valid security clearance of secret rank or higher.
The CV-25A replacement process began with the Obama Administration. The project was submitted by Airbus' US subsidiary with a proposal based on the huge A380. Neither Congress, the Senate nor the USAF could allow their president to fly a European aircraft, and the bid selected in January 2015 was submitted by Boeing for a fixed price of $4.4 billion.
The veteran VC-25As belong to the Model 200 (747-200) dating from 1971, have analogue on-board avionics and incorporate an in-flight refuelling system. Not the VC-25Bs, which are a few metres longer, carry digital technology, are of the 8I (747-8I) variant and are the sixth and last generation of an aircraft which, in December this year, will close its assembly line in Everett (Washington State, on the Pacific) with the delivery of the last three of a total of... 1,574 aircraft built over 54 uninterrupted years!