The Boeing VC-25A ("Air Force One") is a heavily modified 747-200. The two current airframes (SAM 28000 and 29000) were put into duty in 1990 and are slated to be replaced in 2017, although I suspect that latter date is optimistic.

These two 747-200s are among the last remaining 747-200s in service. I suspect that they are the best-maintained 747-200s in the world and they have considerable sunk costs in their custom rigging, but even when the aircraft were put in service in 1990 their model had already been replaced by the 747-300 (1982) and 747-400 (1989).

Why hasn't the VC-25A been replaced to keep up with the times? A 747-400 airframe is lighter, faster, and bigger (let alone a 747-8). These would all seem to be suitable features for what is most probably the most important aircraft in the USAF fleet. Is there some attribute of the 747-200 that makes it particularly well-suited for this role despite its obsolescence in the market?

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    The sunk cost you mention maybe the most important factor. It costs a fortune to modify two big 747 to the level of air force one. Also flight deck of -200 series is less susceptible by EMP compare to modern glass cockpit of later model. – vasin1987 Dec 23 '14 at 7:23
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    @vasin1987 The VC-25 actually does have a glass cockpit. It's really, really modified. – cpast Dec 23 '14 at 8:43
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    For the sunk cost: It appears that the cost to modify the VC-25 was several times what a 747 cost at the time. The majority of the price was USAF-specific things. – cpast Dec 23 '14 at 8:53
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    Bigger isn't really all that necessary for Air Force One. In fact, it may even be a hindrance in allowing it to land at smaller fields. As far as I know, the main reason the 747 was chosen for Air Force One was more its range than its size. The 777 didn't exist yet at that time. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Air Force considers the 777 or even 787 to replace the VC-25s. I wouldn't be surprised if there are several airports around the U.S. where the only time they ever see something the size of a 747 is when the President is in town. – reirab Dec 23 '14 at 15:43
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    I've done work on the VC-25, and as old as it is, the last thing anyone's going to utter on boarding for the first time is "this plane's obsolete." – Blrfl Dec 24 '14 at 14:08
up vote 51 down vote accepted

The 747-200 derivatives used for transporting the President of the United States are VC-25's operated and maintained by the United States Air Force. The US Air Force tends to keep planes for a long time, as they still operate 707 and B-52 aircraft twice as old as these 747's. The E-4 aircraft, also based on the 747-200, have been in service for 40 years. The reasons for keeping the VC-25 aircraft flying are similar to these other examples.

A lot of work went into the VC-25 aircraft. They have been modified to add aerial refueling capability, defensive mechanisms, and include extensive additional electronic equipment for communications. Installing the special interiors was also a major task. As with a bomber or AWACS, there is a large initial investment in development to design the systems and build the aircraft. Upgrading components and providing proper maintenance allows these aircraft to perform their missions long after their entry into service.

Another difference is the engines. The 747-200B model has GE CF6-50E2 engines producing 52,500 lbf thrust each. The VC-25 aircraft have newer CF6-80C2B1 engines producing 56,700 lbf thrust each, which is the same engine as the 747-300. Newer engines go a long way towards improved performance.

As DeltaLima notes, these aircraft do not spend nearly as much time in the air as commercial aircraft. Yet there are many commercial aircraft in service with similar or greater age, including some 747-200 aircraft.

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    The E-4 might actually be the reason for starting the VC-25 as a -200, when the -300 was out before VC-25 development started: the E-4 seems to have been introduced before the -300, so was based on the -200; when it came time to make the VC-25, the Air Force might have decided "we already have a -200 design with the necessary nuclear command post modifications (that AF1 also needs), so let's start from there." – cpast Dec 23 '14 at 18:12
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    @cpast: I think you're the only person to really answer the question, that is why was a -200 used in 1990 when it had already been superceded? – Gabe Dec 23 '14 at 19:13
  • @cpast - I agree. I hope that fooot incorporates your comment into his/her answer, or that you spin it off as a separate answer if s/he doesn't. – RoboKaren Dec 23 '14 at 20:20
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    My dad worked on Air Force One (Reagan, Bush 1, and part of Clinton) and we lived on Andrews when both 747's were received. I had the benefit of growing up being able to see the custom hangar built to hold both planes. As my dad was one of the engine mechanics, I can tell you that this is the most carefully maintained aircraft on the planet. Engines aren't fixed, they are stripped and rebuilt. Much more frequently than even the strictest requirements. I also have been on it a few times. Pretty magnificent from the inside. At least it was in the 90's. – Bill Burgess Dec 26 '14 at 13:55

Commercial aircraft are designed for a service life of about 25 to 30 years. The 747-200 is no exception. The VC-25A entered into service in 1990, so it has operated now for almost 25 year. The number of flights will be low compared to aircraft in commercial service, so the aircraft is not worn out at all. Replacing it with a new aircraft as soon as a new model is available on the market is wasting taxpayers' money.

In commercial service the Boeing 747-200 is too costly to operate these days. With a flight deck crew of three and four fuel-thirsty engines it is hard to compete with aircraft like the Boeing 777. But given the few flight hours that the VC-25A's make and the enormous investment needed to build a replacement aircraft the higher operating costs are acceptable.

On 28 January 2015, the US Air Force announced that the VC-25A's will be replaced by an aircraft based on the Boeing 747-8.

“The current fleet of VC-25 presidential aircraft has performed exceptionally well, a testament to the Airmen who support, maintain and fly the aircraft,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said. “Yet, it is time to upgrade. Parts obsolescence, diminishing manufacturing sources and increased down times for maintenance are existing challenges that will increase until a new aircraft is fielded."

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    Sort-of reminds me of the fact that it makes sense to keep old tungsten bulbs in your attic if you go there once a year. The fact that the new low-energy fancy bulbs were introduced can't change it. The same goes for the car you have in your garage and you take it out only on Nov 2nd to go to the cemetery. :) – yo' Dec 23 '14 at 15:44
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    Also, airlines operate their planes with the intent of making a profit. VC-25s are not operated to make a profit; there is much less pressure to reduce cost. – cpast Dec 23 '14 at 18:06
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    airliners are designed for a service life of a specific number of rotations and flight hours, not years. Of course those tend to lead to roughly the same number of years for most types, as most operators have similar usage patterns for their aircraft. – jwenting Dec 24 '14 at 4:55

A lot of work went into configuring a 747-200 model into an airplane which can be called "Air Force One" (remember it is just a call sign):

  • a cabin with a kitchen and sound-proof conference rooms
  • Secure communication to satellites and military controls
  • Flares and air-refueling probes
  • etc.

In short, it is just a massive amount of work.

It is not like you have to replace everything once it is obsolete. For example, a typical consumer computer or smartphone can last quite a few years.

  • A computer / smartphone:
    • faster, no new essential functionality, brand new
  • An existing computer / smartphone:
    • slightly slower, 100% operational, 9 months old

No way I will spend significant time and money just for a slightly faster performance.

The VC-25 aircrafts are heavily customized for their task. Their components are well maintained. In aircraft lift cycles, 20 years is not short, but not long either. Surely the aircrafts will age over time, at one point it will be too expensive to maintain them than to order a new one. But such time has yet to come.

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    "No way I will spend significant time and money just for a slightly faster performance." Many iPhone buyers appear to disagree with you. – Michael Kjörling Jan 30 '15 at 14:46
  • @MichaelKjörling Even there, I would say it's just a rather small group that actually upgrades on each cycle. Most wait at least a few cycles before upgrading (unless, of course, they manage to break their phone first.) There is a group that will buy the next device just because it's the next device (often without even fully understanding how similar the hardware is,) but it's a relatively small group. It's also worth pointing out that an aircraft qualified to be Air Force One is roughly 1,000,000x the price of an iPhone. – reirab Jan 30 '15 at 15:20

While this question already has an answer as to why the VC-25 has not been replaced yet, it does not address the question of why the VC-25 was based off the 747-200 in the first place.

As you mention, the aircraft entered service in 1990, however its first flight was back in 1987. This was before the -400 took flight, so this could not have been considered. The VC-25 featured a lot of modifications, none of which had been done before on a 747. A long period of planning would need to go into this, so the program launch and initial order would probably have begun a good few years before this date.

You are therefore looking at an order date of around 1985, shortly after the introduction of the -300. The -300 offered a number of benefits over the -200, such as greater capacity and improved operating economics. Capacity would not be of much benefit to the VC-25 program.

Given the timescales, the -200 would be nearing the end of production, so these would have been some of the last -200s off the line. Boeing may well have offered a good deal on these now superseded aircraft. The discounts offered would have gone a long way to offset any increase in operating costs, especially due to how infrequently the aircraft operates.

That is probably why the -200 was chosen. There was simply no benefit of operating the -300, and overall program costs would have likely been higher.

A new pair of 747-8s are planned to come in the next five years:

"The Boeing 747-8 is the only aircraft manufactured in the United States [that] when fully missionized meets the necessary capabilities established to execute the presidential support mission," said Air Force Secretary Deborah James in a news release. The contract must still be negotiated. The cost was not disclosed but the Wall Street Journal estimated that the pricetag could be $1.65 billion for two replacement 747s.

The current four-engine 747 and its backup are 25 years old, and Air Force officials consider the aircraft's normal life span to be 30 years. The new planes – a primary and a backup – are supposed to be ready in five years, James said.

Here is information straight from the U.S. Airforce:

Analyses of the capability requirements conclude a four-engine, wide body aircraft is required to meet the needs of the Air Force One mission. Market research determined there are two four-engine platforms that could meet the requirements; the 747-8 manufactured by Boeing in the state of Washington, and the A380 manufactured by Airbus in Toulouse, France.

The decision, made official through a Determinations and Findings document, authorizes the commercial aircraft purchase by other than full and open competition. This decision, in conjunction with the notification of the Air Force’s intent to award a sole source contract to Boeing for the modification of the 747-8, allows discussions with Boeing that will likely lead to a contract for the aircraft platform as well as the modifications necessary to missionize the aircraft.

However, supposedly B777 was also considered.

  • This would seem to indicate that there's something about the 747 design (4 engines?) that makes it preferable. Either that, or they wish to go with a known-known rather than the unknown-unknowns of another design. – RoboKaren Jan 29 '15 at 13:26
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    Here is some more information. The article specifically mentions 4 engines as a criteria, and adds that the A380 was not likely to be chosen as it is built in France. I wonder how much consideration was given to the Il-96 and Y-20. – dotancohen Jan 30 '15 at 1:27
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    @dotancohen I would guess approximately zero. :) Also, if they wanted to use a 4-engine military transport, we have lots of those that are built in the U.S. (C-5, C-17, C-130, etc.) Now I can't help thinking about the President flying around in a B-52. - lol - Best of all options, though, would be to un-mothball a couple of SR-71s. Who needs missile defense when you can simply outrun any missiles fired at you? – reirab Jan 30 '15 at 15:34
  • I think that the living quarters in the Blackbird would have been a bit cramped. Also, the refuel-after-takeoff-and-warmup would complicate landing at most of the worlds airfields for sure! – dotancohen Jan 30 '15 at 16:04
  • @dotancohen haha, yeah using the Blackbird would have some... operational challenges. – reirab Feb 2 '15 at 21:00

The 747-200 is commercially obsolete: in order to make a profit, an airline operating one would have to charge too much money to be competitive against someone with a 777 or a 747-800.

The Air Force isn't making money off of its VC-25 fleet.

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    many countries use their government aircraft as flying advertising billboards for their aviation industry. Of course in most of those countries that industry is effectively (or actually) nationalised. US might well be the exception there, leading to commercially obsolete types to be used in flagship functions by government agencies for longer than in say France or Russia. – jwenting Dec 24 '14 at 4:58
  • @jwenting Does this actually apply to any countries other than Russia and France? Do any other countries actually have a long-haul airliner aside from Russia, France, and the U.S.? – reirab Jan 30 '15 at 15:47
  • @reirab Dutch government has always used Fokkers, even now that Fokker no longer exists... It's not just long haulers, it's at every level. Most diplomatic services will insist on using cars from their home country for embassies for example, even if there's no dealerships in the host country. – jwenting Feb 2 '15 at 20:47

One reason the 747 was chosen rather than wait for the 777, is that it had 4 engines (like the previous 707). Newer planes tend to have 2 engines as it's more fuel efficent. 4 engines can be more reliable when in a hostile environment.

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    Hello, and welcome to the Aviation Stack Exchange. You may note that the question refers to the 747-200 vs. other versions of the 747. Also, if you can provide references for your answer, that's always helpful! – NathanG Dec 25 '14 at 4:29
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    Waiting for the 777 would have required, at an absolute minimum, a delay of seven years (the VC-25s first flew in May 1987; the 777 in June 1994). Regardless of the number of engines, it seems unlikely that the Air Force would have gone with what was then a completely new, unproven design. Imagine, for example, if the President's plane had a 787-style battery fire. – David Richerby Dec 26 '14 at 23:49

Change doesn't necessarily bring improvements that are important to the mission. Do lightness, speed and size increase the odds of getting the President safely to his destination? They might, but the difference might not warrant the changes, especially when considering the downsides of change.

AF1 is a known entity with known risks, mitigated over many years. After all this time, everything about the aircraft is so well known that flights have a very low risk profile. Everyone from flight crew to ground crew to security personnel have done this a thousand times, raising the odds of success in any given emergency. Introducing any change likely adds risks that outweigh a bit of fuel economy.

As a former RAF pilot has pointed out, when the Army decides on a new rifle the amount of disruption and retraining per involved person is small. When the RAF decides on a new aeroplane, the amount of disruption and retraining per involved person is enormous.

Thus it pays not to replace aircraft without actual need.

protected by Farhan Mar 11 '15 at 20:33

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