How Air Force One Works

From, we selected a few excerpts:

What is Air Force One?

Most people have a general idea that the president’s plane is a flying office with all sorts of high-tech equipment. But there are two essential facts about Air Force One that the general public isn’t aware of.

  1. “Air Force One” isn’t technically a plane: It’s simply the radio call name for any U.S. Air Force plane carrying the president of the United States. As soon as the president steps aboard an Air Force plane, that plane is referred to as Air Force One by the crew and all air traffic controllers, in order to avoid confusion with any other planes in the area. If the president rides on an Army aircraft, that aircraft is Army One, and whenever he boards his specialized helicopter, that craft is Marine One. Civilians generally refer to the physical plane itself as Air Force One, of course, and we will in this article too. 
  2. Today, there are actually two planes that regularly fly under this designation — nearly identical Boeing 747-200B jets. The planes themselves are designated VC-25A, with tail numbers 28000 and 29000. (…)
One of the two modified 747s that commonly flies as Air Force One

One of the two modified 747s that commonly flies as Air Force One


The Hollywood VersionAir Force One got its Hollywood close-up in the 1997 Harrison Ford movie “Air Force One.” While some of the details in the set are inspired by the real thing, the movie takes major artistic liberties. The Air Force says the real plane does not have an escape pod, as depicted in the movie, or even onboard parachutes. Of course, an escape pod could be one of the many special features the Air Force won’t talk about.

Air Force One has 4,000 square feet of interior floor space. Much of it looks more like a hotel or executive office than a jetliner, except for the seatbelts on all the chairs. The lowest level of the plane mostly serves as cargo space. Most of the passenger room is on the middle level, and the upper level is largely dedicated to communications equipment.The president has onboard living quarters, with his own bedroom, bathroomworkout room and office space. Most of the furniture on the plane was hand-crafted by master carpenters.

The staff meets in a large conference room, which doubles as the president’s dining room. Senior staff members have their own office area, and the rest of the president’s staff also has space to work and relax. There is a separate area for reporters traveling with the president, and there is plenty of room for the flight crew to do their work. All in all, Air Force One can comfortably carry 70 passengers and 26 crew members.


Floor Plan

Air Force One has a certain mythic, mysterious quality, largely because it is completely off limits to most of us. Even visiting politicians and journalists aren’t allowed in some parts of the plane, and the Air Force is careful to conceal specific details of the craft’s layout. A number of official and unofficial sources have published general descriptions of what’s inside the plane, but nobody (as far as we know) has said how these pieces fit together.

Here at HowStuffWorks, curiosity got the best of us: We had to connect the dots. This illustration represents our best guess, based on the available information, of how the most famous jetliner in the world is put together.


Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

 Like an ordinary Boeing 747, Air Force One has three decks. The lowest deck holds luggage, food and classified equipment. The middle deck holds the bulk of the passengers. The upper deck consists of the cockpit and the communications area.

Passengers can enter through three doors. Two doors, one at the front of the plane and one at the rear, open onto the lower deck, and one door at the front of the plane opens onto the middle deck. Normally, when you see the president in the news getting on and off Air Force One with a wave, he is using the door onto the middle deck and a rolling staircase has been pulled up to the plane. Journalists normally enter through the rear door, where they immediately climb a staircase to the middle deck. Most of the press area looks something like the first class section of an ordinary jetliner, with comfortable, spaced out seats.

The crew generally enters through the lower door at the front of the plane. From here, they can proceed to the cargo area or climb a staircase to the middle deck.

The staff area is in the front section of the plane, on the middle deck. The galley and conference room/dining room are to the right. The conference room is one of the biggest rooms in the plane — it’s almost as wide as the plane. A narrow passageway leads to a work area and the rear passenger compartment.

The president’s suite and office is to the left of the entrance, on the middle deck, at the front of the plane. A stairway near the middle deck entrance leads to a landing area on the top deck. The flight crew walks straight from the stairway to the communications room, lounge and cockpit.


Special features

Every Air Force One flight is classified as a military operation, and it is handled as such. Air Force crews at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland carefully inspect the plane, and the runway, before every flight.

The most remarkable feature on the plane is it’s extensive electronics. It has 85 onboard telephones, a collection of two-way radiosfax machines and computer connections. It also has 19 televisions and assorted office equipment. The phone system is set up for normal air to ground connections and secure lines. The president and his staff can reach just about anybody in the world while cruising tens of thousands of feet in the air.

The onboard electronics include about 238 miles of wiring (twice the amount you’d find in a normal 747).Heavy shielding is tough enough to protect the wiring and crucial electronics from the electromagneticpulse associated with a nuclear blast.

Another special addition is the in-flight refueling connection. As with the B-2 and other combat craft, in-flight refueling gives Air Force One the ability to stay up in the air indefinitely, which could be crucial in an emergency situation.

Some of the most interesting parts of the plane — it’s advanced avionics and defenses — are classified. But the Air Force asserts the two planes are definitely military aircraft, designed to withstand an air attack. Among other things, the plane is outfitted with electronic counter measures (ECM) to jam enemy radar. The plane can also eject flares to throw heat-seeking missiles off course.

Flight Operation

Every Air Force One flight is classified as a military operation, and it is handled as such. Air Force crews at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland carefully inspect the plane, and the runway, before every flight.


The president always arrives at the base with “the football,” the briefcase that holds the codes for nuclear deployment. An Air Force officer guards the football for the entire flight, before passing it off to an Army officer on the ground.




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