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What Flying on Air Force One is like: Weapons galore, presidential M&Ms, and a lot of hard work
Preparing to board
The first time I boarded Air Force One, I turned the wrong way at the top of the stairs I had ascended into the belly of the plane and nearly got myself shot by a Secret Service agent.
I was a member of the White House press corps, newly assigned to the beat after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. President George W. Bush was making a trip to his home in Crawford, Texas. It was November 2001 and Russian President Vladimir Putin was scheduled to visit Bush's Prairie Chapel Ranch (also known as "The Western White House") for a summit.
I was nervous, obviously. And tired. I had arrived at the White House at 4:30 a.m. to catch special vans to Andrews Air Force Base, from which Air Force One departs. In those first months after Sept. 11, security concerns were still in hyperdrive, and entrance onto the base was extremely difficult. After clearing one layer of security, we members of the press were taken to a parking area on the base where buses awaited. From there, we were bused to a nondescript terminal that resembled any you'd find in rural America. A couple of vending machines, a car rental place, a few newspaper boxes and a few exclusively military touches such as a barber shop were all we had to stare at as we awaited for the Bomb Squad, replete with highly-trained German Sheppards and eagle-eye Secret Serviceagents, to screen our luggage.
The luggage screening gave away to an assembly on the tarmac under the wing of Air Force One. Technically, Air Force One is the call sign given to any aircraft on which the President of the United States is flying. Usually, the president flies on a military version of the Boeing 747 known technically as a Boeing VC-25, although I flew alongside George W. Bush on smaller aircraft to destinations with runways that couldn't handle the jumbo jet.
On the tarmac, you are wanded with a metal detector and frisked by the Secret Service. In time as you travel more frequently with them you get to know these men and women on a personal level. Still, they cut no corners with their diligence and taking the screening of passengers extremely seriously and professionally, even those they know well.
Eventually, the president arrives. He often comes via Marine One from the White House, although if the weather is too rough for a chopper, he'll arrive in a presidential motorcade. The president's boarding process is highly ritualized: He is greeted by a high-ranking military official and/or dignitary. That person escorts the president (and his family, if they have joined him), to an aircraft stair truck. At the base of the stairs, a line of people wait to shake hands with the president. These include local dignitaries and others in the community selected by the White House for the honor of meeting the president and witnessing his departure. When the president finishes the greetings, he ascends the stairs. He pauses at the top to give a wave to the receiving line, any crowd that may be watching from afar, and the press. That was our cue to scramble up our own separate staircase and grab our seats.
Inside Air Force One
Air Force One has a bedroom for the president, conference rooms, and other amenities for top-ranking White House officials. I spent most of my time on Air Force One in the press cabin at the rear of the plane. Additional members of the Air Force and Secret Service, including tactical response teams, occupied other cabins alongside of us.
The press cabin is comparable to a first class cabin on a short-haul domestic jet, circa 1990. The seats, two per row, are lush and leather, but only recline slightly. There is a single television screen, and the selections were usually made by the photographers and cameramen. They often chose uncensored R-rated material. The president, of course, had a knack for poking his head in just as some actress was taking off her shirt. It reminded me of watching Blockbuster movies at age 16 and having my parents walking into the room during the film's single sex scene.
The US Air Force is currently in the process of upgrading the presidential aircraft to a 747-8.
The first thing you notice when flying Air Force One is that normal Federal Aviation Administration rules don't really seem to apply. Practically everyone is armed. The Air Force officers and Secret Service agents carry sidearms. Members of the tactical response team carry rucksacks with automatic weapons. The second thing you notice is everyone's still walking around while the airplane is taxiing. There is no safety presentation, and no one yells at you to ensure your seatbelt is securely fastened. And that lecture about turning off your electronic devices? Forget about it.
Air Force One does have flight attendants, only they are members of the Air Force. They serve meals, supply boxes of Presidential M&M candies on demand, and offer drinks. Trust me when I tell you the booze flows freely after you've hit three or four cities in 14 hours where you heard the same speech given three or four times and are only just flying the last leg home to Washington.
And before you jump to the conclusion that the White House plies journalists with food and drink, know that the news organizations pay handsomely for this travel. I once had to validate an invoice from the White House Travel Office for a trip to Africa and the amount exceeded $25,000. My employer paid the bill.
More work than you might expect
Most people don't realize that flying on Air Force One is often hard work for a reporter. At some point, usually in the final hour of the flight, the White House ventures back to the press cabin to deliver a briefing called the "gaggle." press secretary
If you've ever tried to hold a conversation on an airplane, imagine the stress of trying to listen and accurately take notes about what the president's mouthpiece is saying. The gaggle usually begins with an announcement about the purpose of the trip. But it always diverts into a question and answer session about the news of the day. The spokesman may be asked to respond to accusations by the president's critics, respond to world events, or comment financial news that is roiling the stock markets. Sometimes a cabinet secretary, senator or member of the House of Representatives flying with the president that day would also venture back to the press cabin to chat, which made reporters even busier.
Often the gaggle would end just as Air Force One began its descent into its destination, forcing reporters to draft stories literally on the fly that they would phone in to their copy desks the second the aircraft was "wheels down." It wasn't uncommon to see reporters with a bag slung over one shoulder and a cell phone glued to another ear while they peered at pent up messages scrolling down their Blackberry.
When the plane comes to a stop, usually on an air force base, the boarding process reverses itself. The press scrambles off first, and the photographers take their position under the wing with their trained on the doorway from which the president will exit. I wouldn't say they sought a repeat of President Gerald Ford tripping down the steps when exiting Air Force One, but they are always at the ready for anything. Camermen and photographers are trained to keep their lenses trained on the president at all times when he is in sight. telephoto lenses
There's usually another receiving line at the base of the stairway. After the pleasantries, the president usually moves to a waiting motorcade. When he moves in that direction the press races to its own vans, and it is on to the event with the knowledge that the process in many cases would repeat itself only a few hours later as the president jets on to the next city.