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Air Force One:
A History of the Presidents and Their Planes

With Kenneth T. Walsh
Author
Thursday, May 22, 2002; 2 p.m. ET

How has Air Force One evolved over the years? What is it like for the crew of "the flying White House?" How has the plane been treated by each president and what changes have each made to the 707?

Author Kenneth Walsh will be online to discuss his book "Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes."

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Kenneth Walsh: This is Ken Walsh, chief White House correspondent for U.S. News and World Report. I am happy to be taking your questions.


Washington, D.C.: I understand there are two identical 747's that serve as Air Force One (and I realize any aircraft is Air Force One if the president is on board). Also, are those same planes used for the Vice President as Air Force Two or does the V.P. have a separate fleet? And if so, what kind of plane? Thanks!

Kenneth Walsh: The President has two twin 747 at his disposal, a primary aircraft and a back up. The theory there is that the President would never have a problem even if the primary aircraft has a problem. The V.P. of course travels on an aircraft known as Air Force 2. It does happen that the VP will occasionally use the jumbo jet, but much more often he uses the 707. In recent years presidents have been using a variety of aircraft in the YIP fleet from 747, 707 to C-20s and even the big cargo jets occasionally -- particularly when he visits military facilities.


New York: Is Air Force One always escorted by fighter jets? How many?

Kenneth Walsh: No, it is actually very unusual for Air Force One to be escorted by fighter jets. On 9/11 there were fighter escorts almost all day -- especially after the initial hour or two, but it is rare. The reason is that it is considered too hazardous to fly fighter jets through heavily trafficked American skies. Whatever security benefit there might be is offset by concerns about creating hazards for civilian aircraft.


Paramus, N.J.: What have you learned about the presidents from their behavior on Air Force One?

Kenneth Walsh: There are many stories that have been untold about presidents on Air Force One -- actually that is the bulk of my book. To give you a flavor of that -- there have been 12 presidents who have flown since Franklin Roosevelt became the first airborne commander in chief in 1943. Roosevelt made a secret trip to Casablanca to meet with Winston Churchill and spent 42 hours in the air each way. A trip that today would take about 7 hours. During that long journey Roosevelt showed himself to be gregarious, very inquisitive, eager to learn and very solicitous of those around him - the crew, the stewards, etc. At one point on the return journey when it was Roosevelt's 61st birthday the crew supplied him with a birthday cake he took an old fashioned metal spatulas and dispensed large pieces to the crew and his staff. There is a picture of this in the book. An interesting snapshot of Roosevelt, the private man, who was able to inspire those around him with his sunny disposition.

Over the years each president has created a special habitat for himself on the planes. This is a big part of what I describe on the book -- showing how the presidents let their guards down on the plane, revealing themselves for who they are.

Another example -- Harry Truman had a mischievous quality. He enjoyed having a snort or two of bourbon and liked to play cards with his aids. He was also somewhat of a prankster. He once took off a Washington airfield and realized there was an airshow going on near by. He also realized that his wife and daughter had been planning to watch the airshow from the roof of the White House. So shortly after takeoff he said to the pilot, "I have always wanted to dive bomb something. Do you think we could dive bomb the White House?" The pilot was understandably surprised by the request and asked the president if he was sure that is what he wanted to do. Truman said "Yes, lets dive bomb the White House right now." So the pilot headed toward that distinctive landmark and came down within 500 feet of the roof. Margaret and Bess Truman at first weren't sure what was happening so Harry decided to dive bomb them a second time and sure enough the aircraft came within 500 feet of the roof and this time Margaret and Bess realized it was Harry, jumped up and started to wave. Harry thought this was a wonderful experience. Of course something like this could never happen today.

Those are only two of the many stories that have emerged in researching this book.


Alexandria, Va.: Has there ever been any conversation of self-protection systems installed aboard any of the Air Force One jets? Details are probably classified and I'm sure they've never been armed (that's what escorts are for), but I've always wondered if they have decoys or jammers installed.

Kenneth Walsh: Air Force One does have a very elaborate security system. Much of it is classified, but we know there are "countermeasure" systems designed to divert incoming missiles if Air Force One came under attack. The skin of Air Force One was installed to ward off electromagnetic pulses in case of a nuclear strike and that would enable the president's plane to retain its communications abilities. And of course the secret service builds concentric circles of security around the plane with the tightest circle being close to the president. There are very elaborate procedures for those who come onboard. The secret service takes that very seriously.


Piscataway, N.J.: Have you ever gone on board Air Force One? If you did, how did you feel? Was it like a regular flight (e.g. air pockets, etc.)? Did you get bored or were you distracted?

Kenneth Walsh: I have flown on Air Force One more than 200 times. I have covered the White House since 1986 and have traveled all over the United States and the world with presidents Regan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Clinton and the current President Bush. I still consider it a privilege and of course it is much different than flying a commercial flight - not only for security reasons because you are always very aware that the President of the United States is only a few cabins in front of you. There is a media compartment in the very rear of the aircraft -- just in front of the galley. The experience for us in the media is as follows: after going through the security we generally board the plane up the rear stairs at Andrews Air force Base and wait for the president to arrive from the White House. Just before his Marine One helicopter arrives there will be an announcement aboard Air Force One and at that point we hustle down the stairs and stand under the left wing of the big jet and watch him emerge from the helicopter, walk to the stairs and board Air Force One. One reason we do this is just in case the president has something to say before departure or meets with someone of interest at the base of the stairs, but there is another reason - frankly in case he suffers some mishap boarding the plane. We all remember that President Ford fell down the stairs of Air Force One during his presidency in a moment that photographers captured for all the world to see. No one in the press corps wants to miss such a moment if it happens again.

One final thought about actually flying aboard Air Force One for the media. We are in a press compartment and are not allowed to leave without an escort, so we only know what we learn from people who visit us in that cabin. As I have written this book I have learned that we know almost nothing about what the president is doing on Air Force One because everything is spoon fed to us. The White House generally keeps things to themselves. But I was able to find out many stories about developments and presidential activities on the plane that have not come out until now.


New York, N.Y.: I have heard that George W. Bush has the plane completely changed when he took it over from President Clinton? Is that right?

Kenneth Walsh: Not really, no. Bush has left the aircraft basically as Clinton when he used it, but the manor in which Bush traveled is much different than the manor when Clinton traveled. This reflects the fact that Bush and Clinton are much different types of people and have much different governing styles. President Clinton worked hard on the plane, but he was also a night owl who stayed up to all hours chatting with staff and friends, sometimes even reporters, watching movies, playing cards, and generally holding forth. He loved to be the center of attention and seemed to draw energy from talking to people.

President Bush is a much more disciplined traveler. He is the opposite of a night owl. If he is on a day trip he will leave at the crack of dawn so he can be home at the White House for dinner and is almost never late. President Clinton was almost always late.

One other thing about President Bush that can be learned from his habits on Air Force One is that he takes exercise very seriously. He takes a treadmill on board in the luggage section which he will bring into his office or bedroom where he will have a very serious workout on long flights.

Finally, many Americans are familiar with President Bush's commitment to his born again Christian religious faith. This was illustrated on Air Force One on a Palm Sunday trip last year. Since he could not go to church because of his travel schedule, Bush participated in a service on the plane in which staff members gave sermonettes and Condi Rice, his National Security Advisor, led the group in singing hymns. President Bush told me in an interview for the book that he treasured the ceremony and felt, in his words, "You know I did feel the presence of God amongst my friends on Air Force One."


Chevy Chase, Md.: What is the yearly cost to operate Air Force One?

Kenneth Walsh: We in the media and oversight committees in Congress look at this regularly and it is difficult to get an accurate number. The budget for Air Force One is spread out in a number of places. But I can give you and idea based on different measures - one is that it cost $40,000 an hour to run the plane (basically for fuel costs). When Truman was flying it cost about $200 an hour, when it was a prop plane. There are some estimate that put the entire budget at around $200 million, but I think that is very low. Part of the expense depends on how many backup aircraft and staff travel with the president. For instance if the president goes to a foreign country for a week everything that you might see on TV - cars in motorcades, helicopters, smaller aircraft the president might use - all this must be transported in advance and you can imagine the cost incurred by the taxpayers. From time to time a fuss is raised about this. Clinton's visit to Asia in 2000 cost taxpayers an estimated $63 million. But criticism of presidents and their flying habits has never become a huge issue with the American public. Americans seem to want their presidents to travel in style, comfort and safety and understand this costs a lot of money. They don't seem to begrudge this to the president no matter who he is.


Tucson, Ariz.: Has any Persident ever gotten behind the controls of the aircraft?

Kenneth Walsh: Many Presidents have sat in the cockpit and watched the pilots for periods of time. The Closest I am aware of is when President Bush took the controls of the Navy Jet that flew onto the aircraft carrier a few weeks ago. What happened there was that Bush was in a four person cockpit with the pilot, co-pilot and the secret service. The Aircraft was called Navy One since it was a Navy Aircraft. He did fly jets in the Air National Guard as a younger man, but this is the rare case where the president has taken the controls.


Rochester, N.Y.: Sir, not to be pedantic, but I'm kind of an aircraft buff. My understanding is that the the 707s you refer to for the vice president have all been replaced by modified versions of the Boeing 757. Did you mistype, or am I mistaken?

Kenneth Walsh: Yes, there are still 707s in service. It is at the president's discretion what aircraft the Vice President will use, but Air Force One is such a symbol of the presidency and the 747 is generally as the president's jet, so it is rare for the VP to fly on the 747.


Richmond, Va.: A friend who was a White House reporter told me once that most reporters actually prefer flying the "press charter," since you can drink more and walk around compared to the restricted environment on Air Force One. Is this true with you?

Kenneth Walsh: This is generally true for the press corps because the press plane is less restrictive, the food and drink are readily available and, perhaps most important, once you get your work done you don't have to worry about the president or senior staff appearing in the cabin requiring you to update your story. In my own case, sometimes I prefer being on Air Force One because you are closer to whatever story is breaking on a particular trip, but I must admit the press plane has its attractions because it is so much more of a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. You can be with your friends in a much more leisurely experience.


Durham, N.C.: Has Air Force One ever had to make an emergency landing? What is the best luxury aboard AF1?

Kenneth Walsh: I am not aware that Air Force One had to make an emergency landing, but there have been numerous security problems and other things that have gone wrong. The Air Force One pilots are the best but there was one case where President Clintons plane got stuck in the mud and they had to bring in a second plane to fly him back home. There have been other aircraft that have flown too close to Air Force One - and I tell these stories in the book - but there has not been a collision that I have been able to determine. There was one case when President Nixon was flying into Syria and the Syrian government sent two Mig fighter jets as escorts. The Air Force One pilot later told me that no one had bothered to tell him this was going to happen and he thought Air Force One might be under attack. He put the plane into a dive and took evasive maneuvers, sending staff members sprawling throughout Air Force One. He was hastily informed by the Air Force that these were escorts, not hostile aircraft and the resumed the flight, but several people on the flight that I talked to said they really thought they would be shot down. President Nixon remained in his cabin throughout the experience and never let on that he was unsettled - though he told a friend later that he was. He never wanted to appear weak so he never told anyone aside from his closest confidants.


Kenyon, Minn.: Is the airspace cleared to some extent around an airport to which AF1 is approaching or departing?

Kenneth Walsh: Yes, the procedure is that airspace is cleared for Air Force One and when a president is about to land or take off air traffic controllers do not allow other aircraft to land or take off from the same airstrip and sometimes from the entire airport for 15 minutes prior to the Air Force One's takeoff or landing.


Washington, D.C.: How common is it for Presidents to come talk to the reporters in the back of Air Force One? Are there any presidents who were known especially for chatting with the airborne press? Are there some who almost never went back?

Kenneth Walsh: Today president Bush almost never talks to the press on Air Force One. He has told his press staff that he would visit the press compartment if he could be off camera and occasionally off the record, but the television correspondents won't agree to this so he rarely makes an appearance. His idea is that he should be able to chat informally with the reporters rather that always be on guard that his remarks will be shown on TV.

Clinton actually enjoyed talking to reporters on Air Force One, sometime so much so that he would escape his handlers and show up in the press cabin unannounced. Suddenly a press officer would show up worried that the president would say something he didn't intent to - and occasionally that would happen with President Clinton. At that point he would refuse to visit the press for some time. It was hot and cold with him.

Finally President Bush's father, the 41st president, was very accessible on Air Force One throughout most of his presidency. He would come back to the press cabin on almost every flight just to say hello or schmooze and if he didn't want to answer substantive questions he would just back off and say "Gotta Go." By the end of his presidency however he was so upset at the media and angered by his treatment by the press that he no longer made it a habit to come back to the media compartment.


Kenneth Walsh: Writing this book I have come to realize how much president's really do value Air Force One and see it as a refuge from the everyday burdens in the West Wing. It really has become a very special place where presidents can be themselves.


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