Air Force One is one of the most iconic symbols of the American presidency. But as a flying monument tasked with transporting the commander-in-chief, it is also one of the most vulnerable targets.
“Every movie, they go after Air Force One,” co-pilot Lt. Col. Tom O'Boyle joked with ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl during an interview in the rarely-seen cockpit of Air Force One. “Whether it's a TV show or it's 'Iron Man,' they're always trying to blow up Air Force One, which is a little concern to me because this is my day-to-day job, but in the real world he is very well protected."
The secrets of the recognizable blue-and-white Boeing 747 plane -- heavily modified by the military to be strong enough to function as an airborne bunker for the nation’s commander-in-chief while also providing the ultimate comforts fit for the traveling White House -- are closely guarded by a specially trained Air Force unit tasked with its operation and protection.
As the plane marks 25 years of flying presidents, ABC News was granted an exclusive nose-to-tail tour of the plane and its super-secure hangar -- fortified behind a military checkpoint and two layers of fencing within the boundaries of the already-secure Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington, D.C.
In a briefing to prepare for the plane’s 393rd mission on Monday, a simple flight to New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport and back, every detail and possible interference -- down to the precise location of construction and alternative taxiing routes--– is accounted for ahead of time.
“Every day is not only game day, but it's the Super Bowl,” Air Force One Commander Col. David Banholzer, the 14th presidential pilot in history, told the crew members in the planning meeting. “It doesn't matter if we're on a week-and-a-half trip around the world or just a up to JFK out and back, you always have to keep your guard up and anything can happen on any given day.”
But despite all the contingency plans, the plane’s head of security CMSgt. Daniel Jacobs conceded that the greatest threats are those that are unknown and impossible to fully anticipate.
“When we're parked out on JFK it's a national monument it's sitting out there for many people to see and it's more vulnerable at that time,” Jacobs said.
The unpredictable nature of protecting the president means that the Air Force team must constantly evolve. With the recent landing of a gyrocopter in the shadow of the Capitol and a drone that crash-landed on the White House grounds earlier this year, Jacobs said his team’s training now includes preparing for drones and other small flying devices that could pose a threat to the president.
“This week we just completed a joint-training exercise with the Secret Service, and we prepare for those exercises and those scenarios,” Jacobs said.
Whether it is a drone or a ground-to-air missile, Air Force One has an impressive array of defensive security measures to make it a flying fortress. Though many details are classified, the plane is equipped with features that allow it to repel airborne missiles and jam enemy radar. The plane also has the ability to stay airborne indefinitely thanks to a feature that makes the plane capable of being refueled mid-flight.
In another respect, Col. Banholzer points out, the flying White House is safer than the one on the ground: It’s a moving target. "The air space around us is always secure, so honestly we have a level of security that isn't afforded to the White House because we're mobile," Banholzer explained.
Though the Air Force has gone to great lengths to make the plane a presidential bunker in the sky, there are some rumored security features that remain the stuff of popular myth.
“There's no escape pod, really?” Karl asked Banholzer, a reference to the popular Harrison Ford movie “Air Force One.”
“There is no escape pod,” Banholzer said matter-of-factly. “Our take offs always equal our landings. Sorry to disappoint.”
Escape pod aside, the flying White House comes with a number of other mind-blowing features:
•Make that two
Though its title implies that it is one-of-a-kind, there are actually two identical planes that compose “Air Force One.”
Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when then-President George W. Bush was unable to address the nation from Air Force One, the military updated the plane to install video capabilities.
"Immediately after 9/11, we re-modified the airplane and now we have video capability to both do video teleconferences and if we need to, do a broadcast off of the airplane," Banholzer said.
Video is only the most recent update to the plane’s impressive communication abilities, which also includes 87 secure telephone lines and high-speed Internet.
•Flying emergency room
The plane has a medical annex that can operate as a fully functional operating room in the event of an emergency. The president’s appointed physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson, travels with the president whenever he flies and has a well-stocked pharmacy and medical tools at his disposal. On certain trips, there is even an extra supply of the president’s blood type on hand in a special refrigerator along with vaccinations that might not be easily available at the given destination.
•Stars on the carpet
The president and accompanying passengers enjoy 4,000 square feet of internal space aboard the plane across three decks. The spacious presidential quarters -- which are distinguishable by star-patterned carpet -- includes a living area complete with beds, a private bathroom and shower, a Situation Room, and presidential office. The office is so spacious the president can use a mobile treadmill, kept in the cargo hold but brought up for exercise sessions during long-haul flights.
•Taking airplane cuisine to the next level
The president’s plane is equipped with two kitchen galleys capable of serving 100 people with carefully prepared food fit for a president. If the president doesn't like what's on the menu, staff keep a supply of groceries on hand to prepare whatever he’s craving. Much of the food preparation is done by a dedicated team of Air Force chefs that go on undercover shopping trips to nearby local grocery stores to purchase the president’s food and vacuum-seal the ready-made meals prior to putting them in a secure location aboard the plane’s kitchen galleys.
•World’s shiniest plane?
Every inch of the president’s mammoth of a plane is waxed by hand by the plane’s maintenance team before each and every mission. It goes without saying that every element of the plane’s engine and operational devices are also hand-checked before takeoff.