You won’t find the president of the United States waiting at the airport to catch a flight. He has his own airplane, called Air Force One. Now, a reproduction of this plane at Maryland’s National Harbor will give you a close-up view of how the president travels.
Air travel is so common today that it’s hard to imagine our nation’s top leaders using other modes of transportation.
George Washington, who was president from 1789 to 1797, traveled by horse and carriage at a top speed of five miles per hour. Andrew Jackson (in office 1829-1837) was the first president to travel by train while he was in office. William McKinley (1897-1901) was the first president to ride in a car. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) was the first sitting president to travel by air on official business, flying to a conference about World War II in January 1943.
In 1953, the Air Force designated any aircraft carrying the president with the call signal “Air Force One” to avoid communication confusion. Today’s Boeing VC-25A, the military version of a commercial Boeing 747 jet, was first used by George H.W. Bush in 1990.
The closer you walk to the huge aircraft at National Harbor, the smaller you feel. This retired plane, refitted to look like the real Air Force One, is as tall as a six-story building and more than two-thirds the length of a football field (63 feet tall, 231 feet long). Fully fueled, it weighs about as much as 65 male African elephants (800,000 pounds).
A welcoming red carpet leads to the main stairway, which the president would use. Visitors can walk under the wings, touch an engine cowling (enclosure), and see the landing gears. The words “United States of America” on the side of the plane are in the same style of lettering, or font, as the original Declaration of Independence.
Visitors enter the plane from the rear stairway to view copies of the president’s office, conference room and sleeping quarters. But they won’t see the cockpit or top-secret navigation and electronic equipment. These would occupy the top part of the real three-level Air Force One.
Air Force One has a rotating crew of 30 flight attendants who purchase food and prepare meals, are proficient in safety and rescue techniques, and maintain a professional atmosphere for the president.
Howie Franklin worked aboard the aircraft for 18 years, covering five presidents from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton.
“There are no stars among crew members,” Franklin said. “It’s all about teamwork.”
In 1986, Becky Schulz, then 29, became the first female flight attendant on Air Force One. It was quite a change of pace for a shy farm girl from North Dakota who first earned money at age 11 babysitting and ironing clothes. “The presidents treated us like family,” she said echoing the feelings of her crewmates.
Air Force One flight attendants, from left, Howie Franklin, Becky Schulz and Henry Brown have more than 30 years of service aboard Air Force One among them. They are posing in front of the copy of the airplane at National Harbor. (Ann Cameron Siegal)
Henry Brown grew up working on his family’s tobacco farm in Georgia. Joining the Air Force at 26 “really opened up the world to me,” he said. Years of working hard led to being chosen for Air Force One’s crew in 1980. “Always do your best,” he said. “People will notice. I never thought I’d leave the farm and one day be traveling with the president of the United States.”