What It Takes To Fly The President In Air Force One

The Boeing 747 is among the most recognizable commercial aircraft in the world. While its significance as a passenger aircraft has lessened in recent years, the type continues to hold a special place in many avgeeks’ hearts. Among the most recognizable examples are those flown by the US Air Force to transport the country’s President. But who flies these rare aircraft?

Air Force One, Joe Biden, United Kingdom
Who flies Air Force One, and how do they get to do so? Photo: Getty Images

What is Air Force One?

It is an easy mistake to make, but Air Force One is not the name of a specific plane itself. Rather, it is the designated callsign for an aircraft carrying the US President at the time. However, the term has generally come to be used to refer to two specific Boeing VC-25A aircraft. This is because these extensively modified 747s are the planes that most commonly fly the President.

The callsign came about under the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was first used in 1953, after his presidential Lockheed Constellation’s callsign ‘Air Force 8610’ was confused with another aircraft in its airspace, ‘Eastern Air Lines 8610.’  Since then, another Constellation and two Boeing 707s have also flown under the far more recognizable callsign of Air Force One.

Two Boeing VC-25A aircraft have made up the presidential fleet since 1990. Photo: Getty Images

What does it take to fly it?

The USAF is an enormous branch of the American military. According to the Air Force Personnel Center, there were 12,395 pilots among its 329,839 active service personnel as of October 2020. This gives a wealth of capable flight crew who might be selected to pilot the presidential aircraft.

However, this duty is only performed by a select few among the thousands of USAF pilots. The presidential fleet is based at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, home to the 89th Airlift Wing. This consists of around 1,000 service personnel, among whom are 80 pilots and 89 flight attendants who have been picked to serve on Air Force One. Pilots require at least 2,500 flying hours in fighter jets or other military aircraft to be eligible to fly the presidential aircraft.

Prospective Air Force One pilots must first amass 2,500 flying hours in other USAF aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 ‘Raptor.’ Photo: Alan Moore via Flickr

According to Aircraft Compare, presidential pilots are often high-ranking Colonels or Lieutenant Colonels. Such positions generally require more than two decades of USAF service to be reached. The 89th Airlift Wing also lists 300 instructor hours as also being a desirable aspect.

Air Force One pilots, such as the RAF pilot who became the first non-American to serve on the plane in November 2020, begin by co-piloting other aircraft in the governmental fleet. Should their performance in this role be deemed satisfactory, they are then added to the list of pilots who can operate the legendary blue and white Boeing VC-25As.

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A new presidential aircraft inbound

As we have established, the current Air Force One fleet consists of a pair of Boeing VC-25A aircraft, derived from a pair of heavily-modified 747-200s. However, these have been in their role since 1990, representing more than three decades of service. As such, the next generation of Air Force One aircraft is currently under development.

Air Force One
The current Air Force One fleet is set to be phased out by the middle of the decade. Photo: Getty Images

The two new presidential jets will be known as the Boeing VC-25B, and based on the 747-8 Intercontinental. The -8 is the largest and newest variant of the American manufacturer’s iconic double-decker quadjet. The new aircraft, whose cost is said to have dissatisfied ex-President Donald Trump, are set to be delivered to the USAF in 2024.

Have you ever seen one of these rare USAF governmental aircraft? If so, where have you come across one? Let us know your experiences in the comments!