Photo: White House
Air Force One, the call sign of whichever Air Force plane the President of the United States is flying on, has long been known for the security and comfort it provides its famous cargo.But everything changed with Sept. 11, 2001. The crew realised the plane had weaknesses. It lacked features that would have let President George W. Bush address the nation.
The Presidential Airlift Group (PAG), in charge of Air Force One, stepped up its game, and managed to take Bush to Baghdad on a top-secret mission in the dark of night to serve Thanksgiving dinner to troops in 2003.
The National Geographic Channel took a behind-the-scenes look at the Flying White House in “Onboard Air Force One,” an in-depth look at the PAG, the cavernous hangar at Andrews Air Force Base (AFB) that Air Force One calls home, and everything the aircraft has to offer the president and his trusted advisers.
There are two so if one malfunctions another is available to sweep the President off to where he needs to be
Marine One and Two get the Commander-in-Chief from the White House to Andrews AFB in about 10 minutes
Once on the aircraft, white unclassified phones and brown secure phones in the conference room allow the President to work from anywhere
But he can't crowd the conference rooms: keeping the passenger load light means the plane can always lift off with a full tank of fuel
The crew all have top secret clearances, and journalists seeking access can go through 10 security stops: manifest with the White House, Air Force, TSA, Secret Service, Explosive Ordnance, bomb sniffers, then AF1's personal security detachment
The crew had a scare shortly after taking off from Sarasota, when a commercial plane on its way to Dallas hadn't obeyed the order to land in Jacksonville
The President realised that for all the technology available, he didn't have a way to address the country, so they had to land at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana in order to broadcast an address
After the President's address, the crew took to the skies again, eventually stopping at Offutt AFB in Nebraska, where the boss said he wanted to get home
Col. Mark Tillman, the pilot, was going so fast — nearly supersonic speed — the F-16 crews asked him to slow down so they could catch up
The next major mission for the crew was a covert trip to Baghdad for Thanksgiving 2003. No one knew the President was leaving the US, and fewer still knew of his coming arrival.
After leaving his family in Texas, the President and his team secretly went to the hangar at Andrews AFB to prepare Air Force One and its twin for the journey
To protect security, Tillman and the crew didn't even use the Air Force One call sign; incidentally, air traffic controllers almost outed them over England
Meanwhile, the Air Force One double landed in a still-undisclosed country near Iraq, and stayed at the ready, not revealing to their hosts their precise purposes
The crew, worried the aircraft would get fired upon once word got out the President was in country, stayed on high, high alert while on the ground
Once the President got back on Air Force One, Tillman climbed to 10,000 feet — out of attack range — as quickly as possible
Five years later, Air Force One went on a 8-day trip to Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel; in all, over 14,000 miles
While in Kuwait, the crew noticed a leak in landing hydraulics, and had to scour the area for the right screw, which they found in time for departure
In 2008, Tillman's co-pilot, Col. Scott Turner, took command of Air Force One just before President Barack Obama's inauguration
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