Trump Force One Is Ready for Takeoff
After decades in the sky, the president’s fleet is finally getting an upgrade—unless the new passenger-in-chief adds turbulence.
Donald Trump has long had a thing about Air Force One. He denigrated the presidential jet on the campaign trail, calling it “a step down … in every way” from his own plane, a gilded Boeing 757. He mocked Air Force One’s fuel-guzzling engines and blasted President Obama for taking it to campaign rallies and on vacation. Then, one Tuesday in December, after Trump won the presidency but before he had a chance to ride on the aircraft, he picked up his Android phone and tweeted about a nascent project to replace the presidential jet with an even more powerful and capable craft. “Costs are out of control, more than $4 billion,” he wrote at 8:52 a.m. “Cancel order!”
At Boeing Co.’s offices in Washington, D.C., executives hastily canceled their routine morning strategy meeting. The Air Force One project, known blandly as the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization program, hadn’t been the topic of any recent news coverage, but within minutes it was leading every cable news channel. When the stock market opened, Boeing shares dipped a little more than 1 percent.
Trump’s criticisms were a bit off. For one thing, Air Force One is larger and faster, and equipped with incomparably more sophisticated technology, than Trump’s 757, which he bought used. (One previous owner: a budget Mexican airline.) And nobody involved in the program knew what “more than $4 billion” referred to. Boeing executives noted that the only public expenditure so far was a $172 million contract to study the new machine’s capabilities. Although building a new Air Force One has undeniable publicity value for the company, in monetary terms it barely registers at a company with $95 billion in annual revenue. Executives grumble privately that Boeing actually lost money the last time it delivered new presidential planes. But the company has larger business opportunities that could wither if relations with the president go bad. It’s hoping to gain the administration’s permission for a $16 billion deal to build airplanes for Iran, a contract made possible by the nuclear deal Trump has savaged.
After the tweet, Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg made pilgrimages to various Trump properties to meet with the president-elect and hear his concerns. Eventually he announced vague plans to reduce the plane’s cost, while heaping praise on Trump’s business acumen.
That was enough for Trump to declare mission accomplished. By February he was relying on Air Force One for regular trips to Mar-a-Lago and using it as the backdrop for a visit to Boeing’s South Carolina facility. “That plane, as beautiful as it looks, is 30 years old,” he said, gesturing proudly. “What can look so beautiful at 30?!” At a rally in Melbourne, Fla., he boasted about renegotiating with Boeing. “They were close to signing a $4.2 billion deal to have a new Air Force One,” Trump said. “Can you believe this? I said, ‘No way.’ I said, ‘I refuse to fly in a $4.2 billion airplane. I refuse.’ ” He added, “We got that price down by over $1 billion, and I probably haven’t spoken, to be honest with you, for more than an hour on the project.” Four days later, a U.S. Air Force spokesman said he had no idea what billion-dollar savings Trump was referring to. “To my knowledge I have not been told that we have that information,” Colonel Patrick Ryder told reporters. “I refer you to the White House.”
Presidential aircraft procurement represents something like peak Washington entanglement, encompassing the military-industrial complex, American vanity, internecine Pentagon politics, the Great Recession, and the Global War on Terrorism—all bound by Newton’s laws of motion. Obama, too, made a high-profile attempt to scale back expenditures at the outset of his administration. In his case, the aircraft in question were the Marine One helicopters—and his efforts turned into a cautionary lesson on the hazards of trying to reboot a government procurement program mid-project. Today, almost two decades after the first efforts to upgrade Marine One and Air Force One began, both are at least momentarily ready for takeoff. There’s no telling yet whether the new president, who has a keen interest in aviation, will let the programs proceed or send them back to the gate.
What all parties seem to agree on is that the president needs new equipment. The two 747-200s that serve as Air Force One (the call sign applies to any airplane carrying the commander-in-chief) will reach the end of their intended 30-year life spans this year, having first taken to the air in 1987, with interiors designed by First Lady Nancy Reagan. The oldest Marine One helicopters are a generation older. Certain components have been upgraded over the years, but the airframe remains effectively as it was in 1974, when President Richard Nixon waved goodbye from the helicopter’s steps. It’s scheduled to carry Trump for most of the next four years. “There are serious safety issues with the current fleet, but they’re having to live with it,” says John Young, who was a senior Pentagon official during the course of the Marine One project. Some of the aircraft will be 50 years old by the time they’re retired.
Presidents weren’t even allowed in helicopters until 1956. After a Camp David evacuation drill, during which President Dwight Eisenhower’s limousine got stuck behind a truck on a winding road, the Secret Service relented on its long-standing safety objection to single-engine helicopters. The next year the Air Force procured two small, bubble-nosed Bells, similar to those seen in the opening sequence of M*A*S*H. Eisenhower took precisely one flight. It was another evacuation drill, this time in July, and he baked as the cramped cockpit’s canopy absorbed the full power of the Washington sun. When it came time that fall to take another helicopter, Eisenhower asked for a large Marine transport aircraft—and the tradition of the Marines flying the commander-in-chief was born. One of the first things they did was install an air conditioner.
Today the presidential helicopter squadron, known as HMX-1, contains 23 primary aircraft. There are 11 distinctively brawny Sea Kings, which have been in operation since 1974; eight more streamlined White Hawks, which date to 1989; four other helicopters reserved for testing and training; and a number of Super Stallions and Sea Knights that White House personnel use. The U.S. is the only country that provides its chief executive with helicopters around the world. That is, when heads of state of other countries go abroad and need a vertical lift, they often rely on the hosts’ equipment. When the U.S. president goes overseas, he brings his own helicopters—often in flights of three, to serve as backups, fly staff, and function as decoys for would-be assassins.
The helicopters complement a presidential airplane fleet that includes Air Force One; cargo aircraft that move people, motorcade vehicles, and the helicopters; smaller Gulfstream jets that carry the president on special missions; and older 757s that usually fly the vice president. The combined fleet ensures that the president can go anywhere he wants, at any time, with perfect connectivity, so he can order a nuclear retaliatory strike at a moment’s notice. And after that happens, the military has access to yet more specialized planes: Four hardened “Doomsday” 747s, whose crews refer to them as “Air Force One When It Counts,” sit ready at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
Disaster figures largely in presidential aviation planning. On Sept. 11, aboard Air Force One, President George W. Bush was repeatedly frustrated by antiquated communications systems. At times he was less informed than the average CNN viewer, as the plane then had no access to satellite TV. Afterward, his administration undertook a wide-ranging effort to upgrade the president’s in-flight capabilities.
Marine One helicopters got new communications and security components—“boxes,” in aviation-speak—but their added weight cut the aircraft’s range and number of passengers. In 2002 the Navy, which oversees Marine aviation programs, began a formal effort to develop an all-new Marine One. The White House considered various alternatives—including whether the White Hawk could succeed the Sea King as the Marine One flagship, a natural enough choice because White Hawks already carried out half the president’s helicopter flights. Yet the Bush White House objected because they fell short in one key area: White Hawks don’t have a tall enough door. A commander-in-chief’s confident stride across the South Lawn would have to conclude in an unpresidential stoop. The White House also considered the massive tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey and CH-53 Super Stallion, both of which met the desired speed and range requirements, but eventually decided the downwash from the powerful rotors would wreak havoc on the residence’s manicured gardens.
The Navy planned to unveil a new helicopter by 2007—astonishingly fast by Washington standards. For a project of such importance and pace, there were only two serious bids. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Stratford, Conn., which since Eisenhower’s day had manufactured every helicopter in the Marine One squadron, proposed a chopper based on its two-engine S-92 model. The second bid came from Lockheed Martin, in partnership with AgustaWestland S.p.A, an Anglo-Italian manufacturer, pushing a larger EH-101 airframe with three engines. Both bidders saw the presidential helicopter program as a way to get a leg up in another, larger contract to replace the U.S. military’s aging combat search-and-rescue helicopters. There were bragging rights at stake, too. When the Pentagon awarded the Marine One job to Lockheed and AgustaWestland in 2005, the Washington Post observed that Sikorsky had “lost its parking spot on the White House lawn.”
The Navy dubbed the new aircraft the VH-71 Kestrel. Unusually for such a prominent project with such a high patriotism factor, much of the construction was to occur overseas, at AgustaWestland’s facilities in England and Italy. The Pentagon said the cost savings were worth any dent in public perception of nationalist loyalty. Militaries in those countries were already flying versions of the EH-101 that cost about $60 million each; adapting it for the president, the Pentagon estimated, would only triple the price—a bargain by executive-branch procurement standards.
That $180-million-a-pop projection would turn out to be wildly low. “My experience is that procurement programs don’t get into trouble—they start out in trouble,” says Charles McQueary, who helped run the Pentagon’s test and evaluation programs in the Kestrel’s early days. And from the outset, the Marine One reboot had a master flaw. The White House Military Office, known as Whammo to D.C. insiders, is the immensely powerful entity that administers anything the president touches that has to do with the military—whether the Navy mess or the nuclear football. When WHMO sets an operational requirement, it doesn’t have to pay out of its own budget; it essentially spends other agencies’ money. With the Kestrel, WHMO and the Secret Service began souping up the specs, seemingly without regard for cost.
As dreamed up, the new Marine One could fly more people farther, faster, and at a higher level of performance than any other executive helicopter on the planet. The idea was to create a true Oval Office in the sky, with videoconferencing, a galley, and a flushing toilet, as well as heavy armor and protection from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Eisenhower would have approved of the climate control: The cabin had to remain between 68F and 76F, whether the outside temperature was -5 or 100. WHMO and the Secret Service insisted on a 300-mile range, which would let it fly from the White House as far as Charlotte or Albany, N.Y.
Almost from the start, critics within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill questioned whether the Kestrel was too much helicopter—after all, the president’s flights were measured in minutes, not hours. “They wanted it to have the same capability as Air Force One—that in and of itself was nearly impossible,” the Pentagon’s Young says. “It’s hard for the public to understand how atypical this helicopter is, compared to a commercial helicopter, when you decide to put the president aboard,” he adds. WHMO “believed naively that they’d buy a commercial helicopter, put some boxes inside, and fly away. That’s not the way the leader of the free world flies.”
Complicating the problem, WHMO was separated from the people actually building the helicopters by layers of bureaucracy: Its wish list went to the Navy, which created specs for Lockheed, which passed them along to AgustaWestland. The contractors received as many as 40 changes to the aircraft a month, and each one required rethinking the physics and engineering of the airframe. The additional weight from a certain armor, for example, required sturdier rotors. The engines had to be upgraded. The Navy insisted on reimagining and reworking much of the basic blueprints of the off-the-shelf airframe to meet not only the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial standards but also its more rigorous military ones. For instance, while the FAA required that a helicopter transmission be secured to the fuselage by four bolts—sufficient for the hundreds of other aircraft flying passengers safely around the world—the Navy insisted on six. “The issue is making up the minds of those who make the decisions upfront—and having them stick to it,” McQueary says. “There was a continuing concern that the requirements continued to evolve even as construction began. That’s always a danger signal.”
Even the number of helicopters fluctuated, jumping at one point from 23 to 36 and then down again. The project’s original budget of $6.5 billion, set in January 2005, increased to $11.5 billion by January 2008, with the Navy under pressure to deliver the aircraft before Bush left office so he could celebrate its inaugural flight. He didn’t get the chance. By the time Obama was sworn in, the program had an estimated total cost of $13 billion, or about $500 million per helicopter, and the delivery schedule had slid to 2012.
“The helicopter I have seems perfectly adequate to me,” Obama said early in his presidency, at a White House Fiscal Responsibility Summit. “Of course,” he joked, “I’ve never had a helicopter before, you know? Maybe I’ve been deprived, and I didn’t know it.” His audience laughed. Obama continued, seriously, “I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amok, and we are going to have to fix it.” In May 2009 the Pentagon terminated the Marine One program. The Post called Obama’s decision a “shot across the bow of large defense contractors.” The project had plowed through $3.3 billion. With two active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the mortgage crisis still sending tremors through the economy, Obama found the Kestrel overruns to be a satisfying punching bag. “Among its other capabilities, it would let me cook a meal while under nuclear attack,” he joked at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that August. “Now, let me tell you something. If the United States of America is under nuclear attack, the last thing on my mind will be whipping up a snack.”
Criticizing Pentagon bloat was popular, but the fact remained that the president was flying around on equipment built when Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were topped the charts. And once the price of prolonging the life of the current fleet was factored in, starting a Marine One reboot from scratch was going to cost almost as much as seeing the Lockheed-AgustaWestland project through to completion. The Kestrel had been relatively far along in production. Nine fully built models existed and had undergone testing. Lockheed executives had even been taken for test rides, including James Comey, who years before he became FBI director served as the defense contractor’s general counsel. Its capabilities astounded those who flew on it. “The range and speed requirements were extreme for a helicopter,” Young says. But none ever landed on the White House lawn. All nine had their top-secret communications systems—known by the code name “Yankee White”—torn out. In 2011 the choppers, along with 848,720 spare parts, were sold for scrap to Canada for $164 million—recouping about 5 percent of the Kestrel expenditure.
Obama reopened the Marine One program in November 2012. This time, there was essentially only one bidder: Sikorsky. The company again proposed its S-92 airframe, which was good enough for 10 other heads of state, mostly in the Middle East and Asia. WHMO, the Secret Service, and the Pentagon cut their specs for passenger capacity, range, airspeed, hover performance, operational availability, and transportability. Also: no kitchen and no toilet. In April 2013 the U.S. Government Accountability Office praised the Navy’s “rational balance between requirements, costs, and schedule.” The following May, Sikorsky won an initial $1.2 billion contract to start the project. The Navy has since described the aircraft, VH-92, as an “art of the possible” helicopter, based on a model that’s already in production, with communication and avionics systems that have already been tested.
In an all-but-unprecedented oversight move, the Pentagon appointed an executive steering committee, co-chaired by a Navy one-star admiral and a Marine Corps one-star general. It includes representatives from the HMX-1 squadron, the White House, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, among others. The group has to sign off on any design or requirement change, no matter how small. “Anyone who wanted to do anything other than what was awarded would have to come talk to us. We didn’t approve anything,” says retired Rear Admiral CJ Jaynes, who co-chaired the committee until last year. “There was a lot of nickel-and-dime stuff: ‘We prefer to have this antenna on that side of the aircraft instead of the other one’—well, no. Once we said no two or three times, people began to think hard about bringing anything forward.” As for those six bolts on the transmission—the new managers have deemed that four will function just fine. (Lockheed ended up in charge of Marine One after all. It purchased Sikorsky for $9 billion in 2015.)
Two helicopters have been built and are undergoing on-the-ground testing; the first is expected to take to the air this summer. If everything stays on track, the debut presidential flight could come as soon as 2020, with the full fleet arriving by 2023, at a total cost of about $5 billion, if not less. “The cost is coming down as we speak,” says Colonel Robert Pridgen, head of the Marine One program. Still, the VH-92 is going to be a less capable helicopter than the junked Kestrel. The president “is going to get significantly less helicopter for that money,” Young says. The Marine One reboot is a lesson for the new commander-in-chief: Obama’s attention-grabbing effort to cut waste delivered only marginal results, at a significant delay.
The Pentagon says it hasn’t yet briefed President Trump on the new helicopter fleet. “We don’t have any plans on the books right now,” Pridgen says. “I’m confident that they’ll be pleased with the progress and design of this aircraft.” He declines to speculate on what would happen if Trump demands changes to the design. “We’re building this with a mind not just to the current commander-in-chief but future ones as well,” Pridgen says. “It’s not tailored to any one individual.”
Unless Trump reopens the project, the VH-92 is largely off the drawing board. The president has a much greater ability to influence the next Air Force One, which is still in the planning phase. When the Air Force announced in January 2016 that it would work with Boeing to design the next generation of presidential plane, a 747-8, it had the Marine One cost overruns very much in mind and repeatedly emphasized the program’s affordability and reasonable package of features. The company, the Pentagon, and the White House agreed to design the jets on paper first, discussing each requirement in turn and reaching a consensus before construction. The Pentagon says it intends to formally award the contract for the two planes in the next four months—a timeline that could be scrambled if Trump decides to introduce new demands, whether in terms of greater capability or lower cost. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin will be overseeing both the Marine One and Air Force One projects; he held the same role in George W. Bush’s administration. Whether he’s learned from that era’s mistakes remains to be seen.
The oddity of Trump’s December tweet is that the program itself is really too new to be over budget. The outlines of the project are still forming. Although most features of the plane haven’t yet been decided, a few things are known: Boeing says it will be able to fly almost 1,000 nautical miles farther and produce 16 tons less carbon dioxide on a typical flight, despite being about 154,000 pounds heavier. In terms of design, Trump will presumably have final say. In his private life, Trump’s personal aircraft is famously flashy—with gold-plated seat belts and bathroom faucets, a silk-lined master bedroom, a 57-inch TV, and the Trump family crest liberally emblazoned on seats and pillows. When he was given the chance to select drapes for the Oval Office, he pored over 17 options (eventually choosing gold).
Depending on the fixtures and finishing touches, the new presidential planes themselves will likely cost about $380 million apiece, all part of about $2.8 billion the Pentagon plans to spend on the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization program by 2021. That means the U.S. will have spent more than $11 billion on new presidential aircraft in two decades—not counting the expense of maintaining the original fleet. “Both of these systems cost an absurd amount of money, but that’s what we choose to do for the president of the United States to have increased safety and security,” Young says. “There aren’t magic lessons that’s going to make it cost half as much.”
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