The thing I miss about Air Force One is they don’t lose my luggage.
- President George H. W. Bush
The current plane to normally carry the Air Force One designation is a Boeing 747-200B. Actually there are two identical Boeing 747-200B at the president's disposal. George Bush Sr was the first to ride them in 1990. (His inaugural flight was from Kansas to Washington, D.C.) When the President is not aboard, the planes have the designation "VC-25A". The planes are maintained by the 89th Presidential Airlift Group at Andrews Air Force Base.
The specially modified planes, built to withstand a nuclear bomb's EMP, cost Boeing far more to build than the government paid for them. Boeing felt the exposure, the President stepping off a Boeing plane in every port of call, was well worth the price. What would it have been worth to have, say, Ronald Reagan associated with Levis jeans or Bill Clinton with Trojan Condoms? A lot, buddy. A lot.
Before the B
The first plane ever to be used by a sitting president was a Boeing 314 Clipper. Franklin D. Roosevelt flew on it in 1943 to meet with Winston Churchill in Casablanca.
The first plane actually outfitted specifically for a president was a B-24 Liberator. A VIP transport variation of the Liberator was modified with a wheelchair ramp for Roosevelt. Curiously the Liberator model was known to pilots as the "Flying Coffin", not so much for its poor safety record but because so many were lost in the Burma campaign, flying "the hump", a treacherous route over the Himalayas. The Army had little confidence in the B-24s and Roosevelt ended up never actually flying on the plane specially modified for him. They preferred to fly the president on a leased TWA C54 Skymaster, which carried the nickname "The Sacred Cow".
It turned out FDR was no fan of flying, preferring ships and trains. The Sacred Cow was rarely used. However, the situation changed when the buck started stopping on the desk of Harry S. Truman. Truman loved flying. He made regular use of The Sacred Cow. He even enjoyed ordering the pilot to buzz the White House! The Sacred Cow was retired in 1947 and replaced by a DC-6 (used until 1953, first stop Rio!). The DC-6 was almost replaced in 1949. The Air Force, assured Truman could never beat Dewey, thought they could get on the good side of President Dewey by preparing a Lockheed Constellation specially for him. They even nicknamed it, the Dewtop. Truman, of course, won the election and refused to ever ride in the Dewtop. He even gave an order that the Dewtop should always have a coffee mug in the cockpit that bore a cheesy mustache parodying his rival's facial hair.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower took office, he was accustomed to flying on Constellations during his days as super supreme general type guy and used that model (later replaced by a "Super Constellation" in 1954). Eisenhower's plane was the first plane to carry the Air Force One designation. The idea was to prevent confusion among air traffic controllers. There was an incident in 1952 where some confusion arose when the President's Air Force 8610 flight and an Eastern Air 8610 flight were in the same airspace.
The first presidential jet, and the first plane built exclusively for the Oval Office, was President Kennedy's Boeing 707. Kennedy's exterior specifications for his 707 have become a recent tradition and were replicated on the current 747-200B models. Kennedy specifically requested a blue-and-white paint scheme, that "United States of America" were painted in large, friendly letters on the fuselage, and Old Glory should be painted on the tail.
Now Back to the B
The 747-200B model provides the President and staff with 4,000 square feet of floor space. The plane's galley can serve 50 - 100 people and the plane carries enough food to serve up to 2,000 meals.
To pilot Air Force One, you must have a minimum of 2,000 hours of flying time, experience flying internationally, and a perfect flying record.
Air Force One has a group of seats reserved for journalists. However, there are rarely enough seats to accommodate all the journalists following the President, so most tag along behind in a chartered airliner. Among journalists to ride in Air Force One (and not the chartered jet) is called "losing the toss". Although it sounds glamorous, the press seating on Air Force One is cramped. Most journalists much prefer to ride on the follow-along jet.