Air Force One is obviously a big deal. We close terminals and implement other seemingly crazy safeguards against terrorist attacks while the president is en-route to an airport.

How does ATC protect the president whilst in the air?

  1. I have heard of TFRs for "VIP in the area" reasons — is that for AF1?

  2. I am guessing that the aircraft identification is blocked, but wouldn't they still need to have the transponder on for TCAS?

Specifically, the Wikipedia page on Air Force One has the following quote:

Air traffic controllers gave Air Force One an ominous warning that a passenger jet was close to Air Force One and was unresponsive to calls. "As we got over Gainesville, Fla., we got the word from Jacksonville Center. They said, 'Air Force One you have traffic behind you and basically above you that is descending into you, we are not in contact with them – they have shut their responder off.' And at that time it kind of led us to believe maybe someone was coming into us in Sarasota, they saw us take off, they just stayed high and are following us at this point. We had no idea what the capabilities of the terrorists were at that point."

Does having the transponder on just paint a huge target on the radar for terrorists?

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    $\begingroup$ Well primarily, ATC doesn't. I'm sure they'll vector aircraft away, but military F-16s are a much better protection $\endgroup$
    – SSumner
    Feb 12, 2014 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ the time that Bush went to his troops in a covert mission AF1 adopted another call code and disguised itself as a smaller plane, but for most other applications any time the president is on board an airplane it automatically gets the AF1 call code (even if it is a tiny cessna). If the new president is making his oath and the old one is still flying then they'll need to request a new call code. $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2014 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ Aircraft are always an easy target because they are so delicate. At least when they are low to the ground anyway. As far as TFRs law-abiding pilots ATC tells us to turn left, we turn left. Terrorists don't obey laws so the TFR is kind of silly in that respect although I suppose it does help keep the number of overall radar 'targets' in the area down to a minimum. $\endgroup$
    – p1l0t
    Feb 12, 2014 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ ratchet freak, this is not quite true. For example, when the President is on the Marine helicopters, the call sign is "Marine One". the first word here indicates the "owner" of the aircraft: Air Force, Navy, Marine, etc. For a civilian owned aircraft, the call sign is "Executive One". $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2014 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ @SkipMiller I'd like to see what happens if the AF takes out a wet lease on an aircraft to transport the president. What would its callsign be? It's not an AF owned aircraft, but technically AF operated ;) $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Feb 24, 2014 at 7:37

2 Answers 2


Whenever Air Force 1 takes off or lands, the FAA establishes a 'Temporary Flight Restriction'.

Essentially this is a big 'upside down wedding cake' of airspace in which Air Traffic Control exercises very tight control of any aircraft operating in the TFR. Any traffic entering the TFR without prior approval, or any aircraft deviating from ATC instructions will be intercepted by military aircraft.

When President Obama takes a bus trip the FAA establishes a TFR over the bus, that moves so as to stay over the bus as he rolls along!

Wikipedia has a good article on TFRs.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "upside down wedding cake" - Every presidential TFR I've seen is always to the surface. $\endgroup$
    – Steve Kuo
    Jul 20, 2014 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ Presidential TFRs are two cylinders, one is 10 nm in diameter and the outer is 30nm in diameter - both from ground level to Class A airspace (18,000 feet .) The inner is Prohibited airspace and the outer is Restricted airspace. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Brass
    Jan 20, 2018 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ TFRs over an area where the President is located don't move along with the President. If they did, neither ATC or pilots would know their location and that's no good. They know roughly where the President is going to be and put the TFR there and over a wide area around it (and this is usually announced days in advance where possible.) Also, as Mike said, VIP TFRs don't follow the "upside-down wedding cake" style structure like Class C/B airspace over a busy airport. They're just two concentric cylinders with each being from the surface to (but not including) the floor of Class A at 18,000 ft. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jun 17, 2020 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ -1. The question specifically asks how ATC protects AF1 while it is airborne. The TFR does not exist when AF1 is airborne. A better answer would describe ATC procedures which could, for example, provide additional separation beyond the standard 1000 feet and 3 (or 5) NM provided to all other IFR aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Jun 23, 2022 at 1:25

Regarding TFRs, compliant pilots and terrorists: The TFR can "weed out" non-threats based on their compliance. Non-compliant aircraft would then be singled out as potential threats and dealt with accordingly. In addition, it doesn't just reduce the number of radar targets. It reduces the number of aircraft in the flight space concerned.


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