Letter From the Secretary of State's Jet

Oh, for a Flight Without Wings

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Imagine this: You're about to set off with the secretary of state for Central Asia, a destination halfway around the world, on two back-to-back seven-hour flights in a packed 757 -- and the first meal served is a teeming bowl of pork and beans.

Of all the contentious issues on any trip by the secretary of state, food tops the list. Despite the heroic efforts of dedicated and good-natured military crews to craft miracles from abysmal menus, Air Force Two's food has become notorious.

Almost everyone has a story, comment or recommendation. "I don't think you understand the depth of hatred for wing-dings among the staff," said Jim Wilkinson, one of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's inner circle. "We're not sure what kind of wings they are. Some people hate the meatballs, but most hate the wing-dings. They violate the laws of war, the Geneva Convention and the international convention on torture. They're sooo bad."

In what is now known as the Great Wing-Ding Coup, Wilkinson led a revolt this month to forever banish the chicken wings from the State Department plane.

But there are other complaints about Air Force cooking. "The burrito, it almost took me down," said the secretary's special assistant, Josie Duckett, who got sick during a stop in Tajikistan.

"The flan put to rest my theory that at least you could count on a decent dessert," said Anne Gearan of the Associated Press.

"The meat, it's awful. It's much too cooked," said Sylvie Lanteaume of Agence France-Presse.

"I'm not a vegetarian, but I'd like at least one meal without meat," said Joel Brinkley of the New York Times as he cut laboriously through a brown slab of meat that has become known as maybe-beef.

It's not as if any of us are demanding gourmets. Some of us would likely flunk home ec.

"I'm British -- I'm used to eating inedible food," said Saul Hudson of Reuters, adding that he was "aghast" at the food during his first trip with the State Department entourage.

The Air Force counters that it's not easy to keep an entourage fed. "It's not uncommon to support 10 to 14 days of food in the belly of the aircraft," said Lt. Col. Matt Anderer, acting commander of the 1st Airlift Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base. "When working our meals, the health of our passengers is primary. . . . At 35,000 feet, we try to provide the best meal we can."

Air Force Two is considered a plum assignment in the military . "Air Force One is the pinnacle, and the pathway runs through Air Force Two," Anderer said. Crews are recruited from a range of jobs -- from medical staff and flight engineers to loadmasters of jumbo C5 cargo planes -- and taught by Air Force chefs to cook in the small galley in the back of aircraft, he added.

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