Improving an Icon: NatGeo’s “The New Air Force One” sneaks a peak at tomorrow’s presidential plane.

Air Force One is a symbol for American power. It’s the airplane that carries the most powerful person in the world (yes, still) from point A to point B and then back. Unfortunately, like much of America’s creaking infrastructure, the plane is in dire need of an upgrade. Fortunately for U.S. Presidents present and future, Air Force One is getting one. The planning behind the transition from old to new is the subject of a National Geographic documentary, The New Air Force One: Flying Fortress which premiers tonight.

Technically, Air Force One is the air traffic control sign for any United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. However, the title is more often used as a shorthand for the actual Boeing 747-200B airplane that carries the seal of the U.S. President along with its blue and white paint scheme.

The history of Air Force One dates back to 1943 when the military grew concerned about the then common practice of using commercial travel for presidential transport. That makes a lot of sense. The first iteration of Air Force One was a reconfigured C-87 Liberator Express but that was quickly replaced with a more reliable C-54 Skymaster. It was called “Sacred Cow” and brought President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in 1945. It wasn’t until the Eisenhower Administration that the “Air Force One” call sign was created in 1953.

Air Force One in hangar 19. (Credit: National Geographic/Renegade Pictures)

The New Air Force One focuses on the current version of the airplane which has been in use since 1990 and the plans for the new version on order thanks to former President Trump. It’s something of a farewell to the Boeing 747-200B.

At first glance, the current Air Force One appears impressive enough. It’s a plane that’s been hollowed out and repurposed for optimal functionality. In a way, it’s sort of like NASCAR stock car that has an outer shell that looks familiar but insides that are anything but. It has offices, conference rooms, kitchens, and sleeping quarters. On top of that, it’s equipped with Top Secret and cutting edge defense and communications systems.

And yet, it’s still somehow stuck in the 20th century.


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When you are told how hard it is to integrate something as basic as an iPhone into the Air Force One system, you know they’ve got issues that need sorting out. (I mean, boutique hotels had that figured out well over a decade ago.) Of course, in the late 1980s, when the newest Air Force One was commissioned, nobody could have foretold exactly how quickly and in what direction the digital world would evolve.

As The New Air Force One shows, the development of the new “White House in the Sky” will be intricate and extensive. Ultimately, it will include a new modular interior design, more modern furnishings, an expanded kitchen capable of serving hundreds of people, and a modernized medical bay that is on the level of many hospitals. It will be so advanced that emergency surgery can be performed there. On the outside, the plane will be sporting improved aerodynamics, engines, and engine design, or course.

The biggest upgrades will be kitting out Air Force One with cutting edge digital technology capabilities. As a result of the massive increase in energy needs digitization involves, the new plane will need more electricity as a result so newer more powerful generators will be installed. (Maybe future presidents can earn some additional campaign funds mining crypto.) Of course, it goes without saying that cutting edge defensive systems will only get better on the newest plane.

National Geographic’s The New Air Force One: Flying Fortress offers a fascinating look at an iconic symbol of world power. It also has the feel of Cribs meets Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous meets 20/20. There’s a voyeuristic satisfaction to it that’s designed to crank up the wow factor. Yet, at the end of the program, you can’t escape the fact that it’s the people involved in making Air Force One run smoothly, from engineers to flight attendants, that really makes this particular 747 special.

WORDS: brice marsters.

IMAGE SOURCE: National Geographic/Renegade Pictures.


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