Preston Clive
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A Grand Old Bird Prepares To Wave Goodbye


The old bird in flight--set for retirement in a few years. (IMAGE: Peter Kuhn)

In the end, it wasn't an outrageously huge shock. But when the news hit the aerospace business, it caught attention nonetheless.

The United States Air Force has just this week announced that it has selected Boeing and it's new update to the classic 747 airliner, the 747-8, to be the next generation of Air Force One jets that will ferry American Presidents around for years to come.

The appellation "Air Force One" is not so much a name as it is a call sign. And it was not created out of ego or a desire to be grandiloquent: it was created to distinguish the Presidential aircraft from all other aircraft. 

One afternoon in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower was flying along in his propeller driven Douglas Corporation C118 Liftmaster, then known as "Independence." His plane's call sign was Air Force 8610. Into his plane's airspace comes an Eastern Airlines craft--call sign Eastern 8610 .  .  . and causing a knot of confusion on the radio.

Henceforth, the presidential plane became tagged with the distinct call sign of Air Force One to avoid such mix ups. Eisenhower subsequently moved on from the Douglas craft to a series of Lockheed four-propeller Constellations. Finally, towards the end of his term, the Air Force acquired three of the new Boeing 707 jet airliners to its inventory--and thus the Presidential Jet, known as Air Force One was born. 

With the 707, presidential travel turned a corner from which it would never look back. Suddenly, by the incredible speed advantages of jet flight, the President was able to cover distances in short time spans that would have been positively inconceivable previously via the use of turbo props. JFK continued using specially modified 707's--known as SAM2600 and later 2700--a model which served Eisenhower, JFK, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and George H. W. Bush. It wasn't until the Reagan era that bids were solicited to upgrade to a newer, larger, more modern model jet; bid/plans were submitted by both Boeing with the 747 jumbo wide-body, and McDonnell Douglas submitted a modified DC10.

As the DC10 is probably the worst regarded airliner in history--the plane was rife with issues due to a rush job design executed at breakneck speed to beat Lockheed's L-1011 Tristar to market, and was responsible for some rather terrible and notorious plane crashes with excessive fatalities, one of which (Turkish 981) stood as the worst in aviation history for years (until JAL123 took its sad crown), and another (American 191) still stands as the most deadly on American soil--it's no surprise at all that the Air Force went with the 747. It was, after all, the Queen of the Skies, and it had a good enough safety record. (Some gratuitous historical info: the DC10 beat the Lockheed L-1011 to market, but suffered so many crashes and problems that it ultimately led to Douglas-then McDonnell Douglas--Corps' demise and absorption by Boeing; Lockheed on the other hand, took it's time and created the technological marvel of its day, the TriStar L-1011. .  .  a plane with perhaps the greatest safety record of any liner in history. Although they lost the race, the L-1011 is probably the most beloved plane in history among aviation buffs; Lockheed took losses so significant that it never re-entered the civilian market, but at present it is the largest government defense contractor on earth, and makes money hand over fist via innovative jet fighter-bombers, transports and utility aircraft, and other defense projects.)

Even though the deal was initiated during the Reagan era, it wasn't until the Bush Sr. presidency that the now iconic 747 went into service. With it's sky blue paint emblazoned with the presidential seal, it does it's job of impressing the world whenever and wherever it touches down. But we have hit the point where avionics, fuel efficiency/engines, wing design, etc have advanced, rendering the old 747-200-based model relatively defunct. Even smaller commercial airlines with only a couple of wide-bodies in their fleet carry the newer 747-400, easily distinguishable from the -200 via the winglets sweeping upward at the wingtips.

Now, even the -400's have been superseded by the -8, so named via the fact that the airliner has "borrowed" its wing design from its cousin in the Boeing product fleet-- the new 787 Dreamliner. There was some speculation that the Air Force might select the larger Airbus a380 full double-decker "SuperJumbo" as the new Presidential Chariot. But inasmuch as the new 747-8 stretches the main body of the original 747 design to the degree that the new liner is now formally and officially the Longest Airliner In The World--and since the 747 does have an additional upper deck, (the famous, distinctive 'hump' of the 747) like the a380--the 747-8 will undoubtedly provide more than enough space for the President and his staff, the craft's crew, plus any guests and press that will need to come aboard at various times.

I don't think that there was any serious consideration given to the a380. For a United States president to toss aside an American-made aircraft, and choose a European product for his iconic airborne limo .  .  . it simply would not have been the kind of impression he wants to make, and he surely would have taken massive heat for it.

Surely, there are some folks in Seattle that are rather proud at the moment.

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In other aviation news, Qatar--the national airline of its namesake country-- has announced that it has just purchased a 9.99% stake in International Consolidated Airlines Group .  .  .  the parent company of British Airlines, Iberia, Vueling, plus namesake cargo haulers. It is also looking to acquire Aer Lingus. We'll see how this shakes out--we are seeing obvious results of insider knowledge.

Preston Clive