Sep 09 2021

20 Years After 9/11, Air Force One’s Technology Has Been Upgraded to Meet Any Emergency

New aircraft due soon will feature improved communications, better connectivity and stronger defense.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Air Force One was so low-tech that people aboard the president’s aircraft had to rely on spotty, static-filled transmissions from local TV stations to see what was happening in New York and Washington, D.C.

“There were two TV tuners, worldwide television tuners at my workplace on Air Force One. They were like old-school rabbit ears — UHF and VHF frequencies,” says Master Sgt. Dana Lark, Air Force One’s superintendent of communications on 9/11, in the book The Only Plane in the Sky. “We didn’t have the ability to tune into CNN, Fox or anything else.”

The airborne White House has made a huge technological leap since then. Twenty years later, one of the world’s most famous airplanes has cable TV, internet connectivity, upgraded electrical systems and defense mechanisms that no one will talk about.

But the 747-200B jumbo jet is due for replacement. A new Air Force One is due in 2024, and the improvements will include advanced medical equipment, the ability to broadcast live presidential addresses from the air and secure network support for staffers’ personal devices. Someday, it may even go supersonic.

Current Air Force One Begins to Show Its Age

While “Air Force One” is the call sign for any airplane carrying the president, it’s commonly used to refer to the two jets identically customized for his use. In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president to have a designated aircraft. John F. Kennedy was the first president to fly aboard a jet-powered Air Force One, in 1962.

The version that flew President George W. Bush on Sept. 11 went into service 30 years ago during the term of his father, George H.W. Bush, and was state-of-the-art at the time. But that’s no longer the case; the cockpit control panel is completely analog, for instance, and most of the equipment isn’t made anymore.

“It is essentially like a classic car,” says an unnamed Air Force One crew chief in a National Geographic documentary that debuted in February. “We can’t always get parts.”

1 million

The number of feet of cable installed in the new Air Force One

Source: Source: National Geographic TV, The New Air Force One: Flying Fortress, February 2021

President Barack Obama in 2016 asked for funding for a new Air Force One, a project estimated by the Government Accountability Office at the time to cost about $3.2 billion. President Donald Trump threatened to cancel the project unless costs came down, but negotiated a fixed-price $3.9 billion contract with Boeing.

The two Boeing 747-8s, once parked in Boeing’s Mojave Desert graveyard, are currently being modified from the standard passenger configuration to the more luxurious and spacious interior needed to house a president, his staff, important visitors and a gaggle of media.

While plans were to have the new Air Force One ready in 2024, a disagreement with one of the contractors working on the plane’s interior plus COVID-19-related delays have pushed that date back to 2025.

In-Air Technology Matches What a President Needs on the Ground

Once the new Air Force One ready, it will be completely upgraded. According to the NatGeo documentary, those aboard the plane will be able to collect information faster and more reliably, nearly in real time — no more relying on TV transmissions from the ground.

“It’s important with modern electronics and larger displays, for the staff to be able to use their personal electronic devices so that all the information they need is readily available,” says Todd Carlson, the project’s operations manager for Boeing, in the documentary.

Communications, as described in the documentary, will also include high-level encryption, faster streaming, a full-time connection to the White House and the ability for the president to broadcast a speech live from midair.

In 2001, “we didn’t have satellite TV on the plane,” Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary on Sept. 11, tells Politico. “There’s no email on Air Force One back then. When you’re in the air, you’re cut off.”

MORE ON FEDTECH: Here's a guide to Commercial Solutions for Classified (CSfC) capability products.

On Sept. 11, the crew and passengers did have cellphone access and at least one secure line was available for the president, but as was the case for much of the nation that day, connections were spotty and often impossible.

“All the commercial systems were all just saturated,” Lark says. “We as Air Force One didn’t have any higher priority than commercial American or United flights.”

The 1980s-era telephones aboard the plane were replaced with a secure Voice over Internet Protocol network around 2007. Internet connectivity got a boost in 2016, when the government awarded a contract to the same company that provides inflight Wi-Fi to major airlines, enabling HD streaming and video conference calls as well as improved telephone service.

“At the time, the only way to get everyone together was to go to Offutt Air Force Base, the nearest facility (to Air Force One’s airborne location that day) that had multiple-site video teleconferencing,” says Karl Rove, Bush’s senior adviser on Sept. 11.

READ MORE: The Defense Department found a way to make telework feasible for its employees.

Next Up: A Supersonic Air Force One?

“One of the really interesting lessons from this whole experience was that Air Force One was not properly equipped to deal with a crisis,” George W. Bush says in the NatGeo documentary. “There were phones, but I couldn’t find people. There were meetings, but I couldn’t get to them.

“The equipment just wasn’t as good as it could have been.”

Reflecting both advances in technology and the changing state of the world, the new aircraft is being built to avoid the obstacles Bush and his team encountered 20 years ago. In addition to the cutting-edge communications gear, the new Air Force One will feature:

  • State-of-the-art medical monitors and equipment for the medical bay, last fully outfitted 29 years ago.
  • Digital instrumentation in the cockpit, enabling the Air Force to cut the flight crew from four pilots to two.
  • Defense systems that may include decoy flares to attract heat-seeking missiles, and laser weapons to disable them.

The Air Force is also prototyping a possible supersonic Air Force One that could halve traveling time without noisy sonic booms that could disrupt citizens below.

“It’s just amazing how technology has changed,” Rove says.

courtneyk/Getty Images

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