Flying Air Force One: A Firsthand Account

Kiplinger

Here's something they don't tell you in journalism school: When you make it to the plum White House beat and get to ride on Air Force One, don't stand under it for very long if you don't have to. Why not? So you don't risk losing your hair to the radiation emitted by the top secret technology hidden in the wings of the aircraft.

Slideshow: Air Force One Over the Years

Thankfully, I still have my hair, courtesy of the friendly Air Force mechanics who tipped me off.

I have covered the presidential beat since 1993 for United Press International, New York's Daily News and now the Kiplinger Washington Editors. Over that span I've flown more than 250 legs on Air Force One -- from China to Egypt. It's a sweet ride indeed.

There is no other aircraft in the world like Air Force One. Worldwide, the iconic plane is one of the most recognizable beacons of freedom and symbols of America's reach, might and enterprise.

In the U.S., the arrival of Air Force One and the president at the scene of a natural or manmade disaster -- be it Lower Manhattan after 9/11, Oklahoma City after the massive truck bombing of a federal building or Aurora, Colo., in the wake of the movie theater shootings -- draws the nation's attention and inspires Americans to give generously to people at a time of need.

Naturally, the plane is the pride of the Boeing fleet, as several employees of the giant jet manufacturer have boasted to me over the past two decades.

From the president's private suite in the front of the plane, to the press compartment and galley at the tail, Air Force One is the most comfortable military aircraft in the world -- even with the pilots' penchant for flying through turbulent, albeit safe, weather.

Inside "the flying White House," there is plenty of work space, including conference rooms that double as card parlors and lounges. The plane also features a fully equipped emergency room (which I experienced firsthand on a trip to Southern California).

Everyone aboard gets a first-class seat (our news agencies, not the taxpayers, pay our first-class-equivalent fare), the meals hover between healthy and comfort food, and first-run movies are available on demand in every compartment. Moreover, guests who fly with the president are given souvenirs, such as boxes of M&M candy adorned with the presidential seal and signature, plus certificates documenting their travel on the plane.

As much as reporters loved to whack President Bill Clinton in the media, he loved to routinely stop by the press compartment and chat with reporters. Sometimes he would stay and chat for what seemed like the entire flight. We learned much and shared the knowledge we gained with our readers.

Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, didn't think much of the press corps, and neither does President Barack Obama, with both often hiding far away from inquisitive reporters.

The largest celebration that I recall aboard the plane had to be on the flight from Andrews to New York on Jan. 20, 2001, when it was no longer Air Force One. No longer president, Clinton was being flown home at the end of his second term. A special press pool was selected for the flight and I made the cut, or at least my newspaper did.

The hour-long flight from Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington, D.C., to New York City turned out to be a series of teary-eyed toasts marking the end of Clinton's presidency. It was clear to all of us on board how much he had loved his job -- and how much Clinton loved his rides aboard Air Force One.

"The experience took on a life of its own because we worked there, we played there. We slept there," Clinton said of the jet in the book Air Force One, written by my colleague Ken Walsh, another of the frequent fliers who have traveled aboard the world's most famous aircraft.

Sometimes the work included having to report on less than flattering circumstances involving Air Force One. President George W. Bush's half-hour flyover from the comfort of the plane to review the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina cast him as detached from the reality of the catastrophe. Five years later, Bush would admit the error. It was not his or Air Force One's finest moment.

And when a senior Obama administration aide ordered Air Force One to fly over the Statue of Liberty for a taxpayer-funded photo op in the spring of 2009, the stunt did more than waste tax dollars to the tune of the $178,000 or so per hour it costs to operate the plane. It scared New Yorkers who saw the low-flying plane and flashed back to the horrible morning of Sept. 11, 2001. "This [incident] was just plain stupid," a senior White House official told me when, as the White House correspondent for the Daily News, I broke the story that the director of the White House Military Office was being fired because of the flyover debacle.

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