The Boeing 747 in Government Service
Versions of the Boeing 747 have been used in the United States Air Force (USAF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) beginning in 1974. The 747’s size made it a natural choice for certain missions. There was even some thought and development to use 747s for other missions that never came into being. The 747 history of government service shows the aircraft’s capability, says something about our history, and current capabilities. The 747 programs that were dropped leads to speculation on what might have been and maybe what eventually will be.
E-4 National Airborne Operations Center
The E-4 serves as the National Airborne Operations Center. Should ground command, control, and communications centers be destroyed the E-4 would take over that function. The E-4 is a militarized version of the Boeing 747-200. The E-4A entered service in 1974. The USAF upgraded the E-4 fleet to E-4Bs by 1985 all operational E-4s were E-4Bs. There are currently 4 E-4Bs in the USAF. Besides its military mission E-4s have also supported the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.[i] The first mission to support natural disasters was in September 1995 when an E-4 flew the National Emergency Response Management Team to the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricane Opal.[ii] On May 12, 2010 the tail of an E-4B struck the runway at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The crew was uninjured but the E-4B sustained $3.1 million in damage.[iii] In June 2017 a tornado near Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, damaged two E-4Bs taking them out of commission.[iv]
[i] USAF Fact Sheet, E-4B, published September 23, 2015, www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104503/e-4b/, last accessed 9/1/2018.
[ii] FEMA Photo taken on 9/16/1995, archive.is/20120802031428/http://www.fema.gov/photolibrary/photo_details.do;jsessionid=486014CDA61A349975336B7C6B772ECC.WorkerPublic3?id=1241, last accessed 9/2/2018.
[iii] USAF.mil, Officials release E-4B accident report, published August 20, 2010, www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/115831/officials-release-e-4b-accident-report/, last accessed 9/1/2018.
[iv] Air Force ‘doomsday’ planes damaged in tornado by Zachary Cohen and Barbara Starr, June 23, 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/06/23/politics/air-force-planes-damaged-tornado/index.html, last accessed 9/2/2018.
Max T/O Weight
800,000 lbs (360,000 Kg)
30,000+ feet (9,091 m)
@ $223.2M (FY'98 dollars)
VC-25A Presidential Aircraft
Military versions of the Boeing 747, designated VC-25A, joined the presidential fleet in 1990. Two VC-25As, tail numbers 28000 and 29000, are in the Presidential fleet. The USAF deployed tail number 28000 on September 6, 1990 when it transported President George H.W. Bush from Andrews AFB, Maryland to Kansas, then to Florida, and back to Andrews AFB. The USAF deployed tail number 29000 on March 26, 1991. In November, 1995 29000 transported Presidents William Jefferson Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush to Israel so they could attend the funeral of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. On September 11, 2001 tail number 29000 flew President George W. Bush and his staff from Florida to Andrews AFB. On March 23, 2016, tail number 28000 flew President Barrack Hussein Obama to Cuba.[i] It was the first and only time a sitting U.S. president was flown to Cuba.
[i] Air Force Fact Sheets, VC-25 – Air Force One, www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104588/vc-25-air-force-one, Published July 1, 2003, last accessed 9/2/2018
National Aeronautcs and Space Administration
In 1974 NASA purchased a 747-123 from American Airlines. The plane was given the tail number NASA 905. This 747 flew some wake vortex research flights. Large aircraft can cause control problems for aircraft flying behind them. The Federal Aviation Administration modified flight procedures for commercial aircraft as a result of NASA’s research.[i]
After these tests NASA modified 905 so it could transport Space Shuttles. When the Space Transportation System (STS) orbiter Enterprise was ready NASA had 905 perform ground taxi and flight tests with the Enterprise mated to its fuselage. When NASA was convinced 905 could perform the mission of Space Shuttle Carrier (SCA) then it took Enterprise up for test flights. NASA 905 would fly with the Enterprise attached to it. When at altitude the 747 would detach from the Enterprise. The Enterprise would glide to a landing. These tests proved the STS could land like a conventional aircraft.
In March, 1979 the Space Shuttle Columbia, constructed in California, had to get to Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA’s 747 flew the Columbia to Florida, with a layover in Texas. When the STS missions began the STS would launch from Cape Canaveral and the orbiter would land at Edwards Air Force Base, California. NASA 905 would carry the orbiter to Cape Canaveral for the next launch. When the Cape Canaveral strip was ready orbiters would normally land at Cape Canaveral. When the orbiter was unable to land at Cape Canaveral NASA 905 would have to transport the orbiter from where it landed to Cape Canaveral. NASA 905 ferried the Enterprise to London and to the Paris Air Show in 1983. It also ferried Enterprise for display at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans.[ii] It flew the Enterprise to Dulles airport for its eventual display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.
A 747-100SR-46, NASA 911, joined NASA 905 on November 20, 1990. This former Japan Air Lines jetliner flew 66 flights with a space shuttle attached to it. NASA 911 retired on February 8, 2012. NASA 905 was retired later in 2012.[iii] NASA 905 was retired after flying Enterprise from Dulles, Virginia to New York, Discovery to Dulles, and Endeavour to Los Angeles. These shuttles are museum displays as are NASA 905 and 911.
[i] NASA Fact Sheet, NASA Armstrong Fact Sheet: Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, www.nasa.gov/centers/armstrong/news/FactSheets/FS-013-DFRC.html, last accessed 9/4/2018.
[ii] NASA Fact Sheet, NASA Armstrong Fact Sheet: Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, www.nasa.gov/centers/armstrong/news/FactSheets/FS-013-DFRC.html, last accessed 9/4/2018.
[iii] NASA Fact Sheet, NASA Armstrong Fact Sheet: Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, www.nasa.gov/centers/armstrong/news/FactSheets/FS-013-DFRC.html, last accessed 9/4/2018.
What Might Have Been
In the 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter canceled the B-1A, there was some consideration given to the idea of using Boeing 747s as Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft (CMCA). The concept was to have 747s capable of carrying up to 100 Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs). The proponents believed penetration bombers couldn’t stand a chance against the Soviet air defenses. Detractors pointed out with up to 100 ALCMs on each plane they were lucrative targets for long range fighters. The plans for CMCAs was cancelled and the USAF bought 100 B-1B bombers.
The USAF developed an Airborne Laser (ABL) program. The plan was to use a modified Boeing 747-400F armed with a laser cannon to destroy missiles while the missiles were in the boost phase. Then Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, slashed $1.4 billion from the program in 2010 and the program was changed to the Airborne Laser Test Bed. The program was canceled on February 16, 2012 in favor of the U.S. Navy’s Free Electron Laser program.[i]
[i] Airborne Laser, www.airborne-laser.com, last accessed 9/6/2018.
© 2018 Robert Sacchi