I have a picture of Air Force One I took fairly up close several years ago.

Air Force One at KBFI

Unfortunately, I don't remember if that was on arrival or departure.

Is there anything visible in the airplane's configuration (flaps, angle of gear?) that would indicate if this is arrival or departure?

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    What airport was this at, and do you know from what vantage point you took the picture? Looks like it may be fairly easy to determine what runway it was touching down or taking off from judging by the GA aircraft/hangers in the background. Should tell you what end of the runway you are looking at. – Ron Beyer Jan 11 '17 at 18:14
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    Hey now, this isn't Puzzling.SE! – fooot Jan 11 '17 at 19:42
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    The airport is KBFI, and I'm pretty sure I was standing on a ramp between A-9 and A-10 (south end of the airport). The hangers visible have green roofs visible here, which would indicate the plane is headed north, and is Landing. – abelenky Jan 11 '17 at 21:03
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    Paging @Terry to the white phone. Resident 747 expert to the white courtesy phone, please. – FreeMan Jan 11 '17 at 21:39
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    So, through the answers we have 100% ascertained that the plane is either taking off or landing. Great work! ;) – Jamiec Jan 13 '17 at 14:34

10 Answers 10

The plane is probably taking off. The flaps are hard to see but they don't quite look to be extended enough for landing (Looks like flaps 20). On a 747 they extend to around 45 degrees (flaps 30, but they curve around more than that) for landing and have a huge, unmistakable profile. Further, we know it's KBFI and we know the plane is on 31L from the photo. Looking at the area we can deduce... (click for bigger)

enter image description here

...that the plane is about 3500ft into the runway proper, and 4500ft if we count the displaced threshold (and just off the ground) with the face of the southmost Jorgensen Forge building visible in the background (along with the green GA hangars).

enter image description here

At 3500-4000ft into the runway, hovering over the last markers in the TDZ, this seems quite late to be a landing. It might be a very deep float, but I would expect more precision from an Air Force pilot flying the CINC around. Air Force One is heavier empty, but probably overall lighter than a loaded 747-200 (and has powerful engines), so a 4000ft takeoff run for a light 747-200/VC-25 is sensible and probably more likely than an extremely late landing.

The flaps are more than minimum for takeoff, but seemingly less than normal for landing. Maybe 31L was running shortened that day? Entry at B10 onto the displaced threshold would also give them an extra 1000ft - V1 just past the aim point and rotate near the end of the TDZ markers seems sensible enough.


EDIT

After running a series of simulations, it seems difficult for the VC-25 to be able to takeoff from where we see it, even when starting from B10. The VC-25 is 525,000lbs empty. With only 100,000lbs load (fuel+people) it can takeoff by B5 at flaps 20, but only by lifting off below V2 (no wind). This has to be a landing (confirmed by the newly discovered set of photos), but it is a very late landing indeed.

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    The only real problem with this answer is that...it's kind of inconclusive. I mean, you've shown that it could be a takeoff (and I would agree, it's what I put in my answer too), but at the same time...what's to say the pilot didn't just have a bad approach and ended up floating the landing a bit? They would still have around 9,000ft to stop in, which should be more than enough... Establishing the location only makes it seem like it could still go either way. – Jay Carr Jan 12 '17 at 5:43
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    The funny thing is, after we have figured out where the plane is, the community still has a dispute about whether it is takeoff or landing. – kevin Jan 12 '17 at 9:34
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    @kevin This is slowly turning into the "blue dress" of Aviation.SE. Starting to wonder if it should be closed as "primarily opinion based".... But I'm having too much fun to do such a thing :D. – Jay Carr Jan 12 '17 at 15:03
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    @JayCarr I have seen a 747-200 take only 3300 ft to be airborne and 4000ft pulling up the landing gear. But also I have seen the same aircraft take further to touch its wheels on the ground when it has an unexpected tail wind. – Bullfrog Jan 13 '17 at 11:09
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    So...abelensky found the series of photo this was taken from, see for yourself: drive.google.com/file/d/0BxQOwrukppp5WTlfaEFLTVNzTnc/view ...it's clearly landing. I guess the pilot did end up floating it pretty bad that day ;). – Jay Carr Jan 13 '17 at 13:46

Please skip to the edit after the picture to see my actual answer. I'm leaving my original answer intact though, since other answers have referenced it.


I'm guessing that's it's taking off because:

  1. The wheels appear to be spinning (though the picture is kinda grainy so...)
  2. There isn't any smoke behind the tires, even though it would have just touched down.
  3. The nose angle looks a little high for a landing.
  4. The flaps look like they are set for take off.

For reference, here is a 747 landing. You'll note the flaps are extended much further:

enter image description here Image pulled from this youtube video, Copyright Robin Johansson

So, yeah... I'd say it was taking off.


EDIT-- I've had a long hard think about it and I've come to this conclusion: It can't be determined if the plane is taking off or landing from the picture.

Why? Well, let's examine the evidence...

Landing:

  • Tires -- Either they just made contact and haven't produced any smoke yet, or, they pilot managed to land it so gently that there's simply no smoke.
  • Flaps -- They don't look fully extended to me, but it's very hard to see the inboard flaps, and it's completely possible they are fully extended
  • Location -- Yes, as J... established, it's roughly 4000 ft down the runway. But perhaps the pilot was just having a bay day and floated it a bit. There's 6000 ft of runway left, they can still stop.
  • Nose Angle -- As fooot pointed out, it's entirely possible the nose is high because the plane is being flared.

Taking Off

  • Tires -- They wouldn't be smoking because they are being lifted off the ground.
  • Flaps -- They are definitely beyond Flaps 10 (normal configuration) but they may have them at Flaps 20 (which is an alternate procedure, from what I've read.) This actually reduces take off speed by 7 knots if, for some reason you want to get off the ground quickly. Which leads to:
  • Location -- If the plane is mostly empty (no press, just a couple people) and it's configured to Flaps 20, it's entirely possible to get off the ground in 4000', sometimes less. (I need a citation, I came across this doing a bunch of research last night, I swear!) If you combine that with J...'s idea that perhaps the plane entered at taxiway B10, then the plane could easily get off the ground by the time it reach that location if it is in the configuration I've described (Flaps 20, lightly loaded).
  • Nose Angle -- Well, it looks to me like it's angling up for lift. But again, this can go either way.

Conclusion: Seriously folks, this can go in either direction. This has basically become the "Blue Dress" of Aviation.SE. You can't easily tell if it's taking off or landing from the picture. Now, if someone else who was there that day could show up...maybe with weight and balance numbers...and some idea of how quickly Air Force One may have wanted to take off...maybe a grainy sound recording from the grassy knoll...and maybe a full video, verified by an independent panel of plane watches, the FAA, The Air Force, and the NTSB... Then we'd know ;).

But as it stands, it simply isn't possible to tell.

  • The picture appears to be well within the height when they would be expected to flare for a landing, which would bring the nose higher. – fooot Jan 12 '17 at 0:32
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    "There isn't any smoke behind the tires, even though it would have just touched down." - No, it wouldn't. All wheels are still in the air. – André Stannek Jan 12 '17 at 9:51
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    @AndréStannek I disagree, it appears to me that the center, rear trucks are touching the ground. But I'll also be the first to admit that it's hard to see. – Jay Carr Jan 12 '17 at 14:53
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    @AndréStannek Actually, I think if you look at J...'s (frankly excellent) answer, it does a great job of establishing where the plane is. The black pavement in the foreground is a taxiway, so I doubt it would be landing on that. The runway itself is beyond the grass :). – Jay Carr Jan 12 '17 at 15:01
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    "This has basically become the "Blue Dress" of Aviation.SE". Strongly disagree!. This has basically become the "Gold and white Dress" of Aviation.SE – Krumia Apr 25 '17 at 11:30

This picture is most likely taken during landing. The flaps configuration is the best clue. Flaps are extended more for landing than they are for takeoff. Compare with other pictures of Air Force One:

OP, brightness adjusted:

Air Force One detail from OP

Landing (original)

Air Force One Landing

Takeoff (source)

Air Force One Departing

The difference in flaps is a bit subtle but seems to match landing best.


Other good clues for cases like this, but that aren't of any help here:

Spoilers or reverse thrust deployed, which will indicate a landing. The angle of the photo is bad for seeing this, and it would be a little early for them anyway.

Smoke from the tires, indicating touchdown on landing. It could be off screen, but it's also hard to tell for sure if the tires are on the ground.

Clues from other scenery in the image that will help place the aircraft at a certain point on the runway. Landings should be near a threshold, takeoffs will be further down. There isn't much to go on in the OP but with a location it may offer clues.


Based on the lighting this picture was clearly taken around mid-day. We can look at the history of recent presidential visits to the Seattle area to see when Air Force One would have been on the runway around that time.

October 2015 - AF1 arrived during the day and left in the evening. If this photo is from 2015 it would have to be a landing. However, those photos show a more hazy/overcast sky while the OP photo looks more clear.

July 2014 - AF1 arrived just after 1500 local and left in the evening again. The shadows seem to suggest that the OP photo was earlier than 1500 local (hangars still in daylight, see 2010 photos) but it would still be more plausible than a departure.

April 2014 - AF1 flew to KPAE.

November 2013 - AF1 flew to KSEA.

February 2012 - AF1 flew to KPAE.

October 2010 - AF1 flew into KBFI, looking for a good reference.

August 2010 - AF1 arrived in the evening, and left during the afternoon. If the OP is from 2010 this would support a departure. But the photo of the departure has different lighting than the OP.

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    Huh...see, I was thinking the exact opposite. To me the flaps don't look like they are nearly extended enough for landing. What makes you think they are fully extended? (And I say this having looked at a few images already...). Plus there's no tire smoke, even though the wheel would have just touched down... – Jay Carr Jan 11 '17 at 17:16
  • I think it's kind of hard to tell from the lighting in the OP but I'm comparing to other photos of the 747-200, and the inboard flaps will show the most difference. I'm working on reference pics. – fooot Jan 11 '17 at 17:17
  • Does the enhanced photo not look closer to takeoff configuration than landing configuration to you? I admit, it's extended a little bit beyond your take off picture, but the VC-25 is kinda heavier than the normal 747 I thought...it just doesn't look nearly extended enough for takeoff. – Jay Carr Jan 11 '17 at 17:24
  • The landing photo seems to match the OP best, but it's hard to tell without a comparable takeoff angle. The outboard flaps look close but the inboard ones are much further extended for landing, which seems to match OP. – fooot Jan 11 '17 at 17:27
  • @JayCarr I don't think the VC-25 is heavier. They carry a lot less people, and the engines are very powerful for a 747 at its weight. – kevin Jan 11 '17 at 21:16

Measured directly on the image, the angle between the cheatline and the runway is 5.5°; the true pitch angle of the plane will be slightly less than that, because of a little perspective foreshortening.

According to this document from Boeing, a typical liftoff attitude for a 747-400 is 10°. (The VC-25 in the picture is a modified 747-200, but none of the various aircraft in Boeing's diagram show a liftoff attitude of less than 7°).

Furthermore, the recommended rotation rate is 2 to 3 degrees per second, so if this image shows a departure, we must be looking at a moment only about two seconds after rotation was initiated.

Since the aircraft in the picture is definitely airborne (no matter which part of the picture is the runway, it is unmistakable that none of the main gear bogies have all four wheels on the ground), I conclude that it cannot be a takeoff – at least not an ordinary uneventful one.

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    Did you take into account the fact that the photograph isn't level? And there's very little foreshortening, because the photograph is taken from close to side-on. – David Richerby Jan 12 '17 at 17:53
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    @DavidRicherby: Yes, I measured the angle between the white cheatline and the runway, not between the cheatline and the edge of the photograph. The point I make about foreshortening is that 5.5° is an upper bound for the actual pitch. (Otherwise someone might complain that because of perspective we can't conclude anything from measuring on the photograph -- I'm merely pointing out that the direction in which perspective can change things is unambiguous). – Henning Makholm Jan 12 '17 at 17:55
  • Cool. I made an edit to clarify that but feel free to roll back if you think it's not useful. – David Richerby Jan 12 '17 at 18:04
  • very careful answer! that is a very good clue that it is landing indeed! – dalearn Jan 13 '17 at 14:47
  • So you conclude it's a shallow landing? Why would they do this? For the comfort of the people on board as shallow landing means less vertical speed on touchdown? – yo' Jan 14 '17 at 16:23

Why don't we actually analyze videos of Air Force One landing and taking off instead of just analyzing the pictures?

Here is a video of it taking of at Boeing Field on 13R (the same runway, but opposite direction).

Note that the B4 taxiway mark is clearly visible in the video. By counting the number of taxiway marks and comparing it to the airport chart:

enter image description here

  • Takeoff run began at the beginning of 13R
  • Rotation is initiated when the plane passes B5
  • Airborne is achieved around B7

So that makes up, well, ~75% of runway length.

Now,

  • Following J...'s answer, we can see the plane is somewhere between A10 and A9 when it touches down.
  • We also agree that the flaps setting is more than a conventional takeoff but less than a conventional landing.
  • Would Air Force One add more flaps for a short-field takeoff? Unlikely. They don't carry as much passengers and cargo, they have 4 engines, each engine is more powerful than a typical B747 engine, and they have a 10,000 feet runway.
  • The image is either taken moments after takeoff, or a split second before touchdown.
  • Note that the wheels are hanging, meaning they carry no weight of the aircraft at that point. If this was a takeoff, then rotation would have been initiated somewhere near the PAPI lights, between A10 and A11. How can it accelerate to Vr within such short distance?!

Therefore, I conclude: the plane is landing with a faster-than-average approach speed and a less-than-average flap setting.

  • That looks like a pretty lazy takeoff, to be honest. Same roll, but here rotation before B4 and airborne around AB youtube.com/watch?v=l4N10mXcHyI – J... Jan 12 '17 at 10:49
  • Plus, the thing that's really making this debate kind of pointless in the end: we have no idea what the weight of the plane is in the picture, or in your video. Sometimes it's completely full of people and equipment, sometimes it's empty because it's just being ferried. A 747-200 can take off in 4000ft empty, but yes, it would take roughly 75% of the runway if full (and if you're being lazy, as @J... points out.) – Jay Carr Jan 12 '17 at 15:12
  • @JayCarr I've heard Air Force One carries a lot of gear, so I doubt you can use the regular empty weight even if it's just the pilot. Anyway the plane was 2,920 ft from the end of the runway proper see my answer – D_Bester Mar 10 at 21:01

Another way to possibly determine the answer to the question: check the photo's exif data to see time photo taken, then google where potus was going that day which will determine if this was origin or destination. Google that day's news for further clues on potus schedule and location, if necessary.

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    It is very possible that this was an aircraft maintenance or test flight or some other flight mission that did not include transporting any VIP, much less the POTUS. – J Walters Jan 12 '17 at 16:25
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    Not sure why this is being so heavily downvoted. There are a bunch of answers that use the photograph alone to conclude that the plane is landing and a bunch that use the photograph alone to conclude that it's taking off. It seems that we need more information to come to a firm conclusion: we can't even all agree whether or not the plane is on the ground! This answer suggests a way of obtaining more information. – David Richerby Jan 12 '17 at 17:50
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    @DavidRicherby probably because it doesn't actually (attempt to) answer the question, it merely provides a suggestion for finding the answer. It would be better suited as a comment on the OP. – FreeMan Jan 13 '17 at 19:34
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    @DavidRicherby there's no reason for POTUS to be on board for a VC-25 to be anywhere, especially Boeing Field which is (one of) Boeing's corporate fields where aircraft fly to and from when going in for depot level maintenance, upgrades, etc. etc.. Most likely the aircraft was carrying only a flight crew of 3 and maybe a USAF load master, with minimum fuel for where it was going to or arriving from. – jwenting Jan 16 '17 at 7:20
  • @jwenting The answer says "possibly". It seems possible to me. – David Richerby Jan 16 '17 at 8:02

Don't be fooled by the black line which looks like that the plane is on the ground.

Enter image description here

The runway is marked with a white line, so the plane is still 3+ m in the air.

So I think it's landing.

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    It really isn't. The wheels would not be level if it were in the air (the most reword trucks are level). You are looking at the taxiway, you can tell because there is an orange cone on it, and it's clearly nearer to the person taking the photo. – Jay Carr Jan 11 '17 at 21:40
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    Further, even if the plane were 3 meters in the air, it would have to be 3 m in the air on both takeoff and landing...so I don't follow your logic. – Jay Carr Jan 11 '17 at 21:41
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    but you have stated in your answer that "There isn't any smoke behind the tires, even though it would have just touched down." So i need to argue – romanemul Jan 11 '17 at 21:46
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    You can see the shadow on the ground underneath the plane, but nowhere in the foreground of the picture, so that suggests it is above the pavement directly under the plane, not the pavement in the foreground. Besides, the foreground looks a lot more like a taxiway with the yellow stripe. – fooot Jan 11 '17 at 22:29
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    @JayCarr The wheels aren't level. Look at this photo of a 747-200 that's definitely in the air. You see that the outboard bogies are at a very steep angle, and the inboards are at a much more gentle angle (almost parallel to the plane's long axis), just like the photo in the question. (In the question photo, the right outboard is clearly separated; the left outboard and the inboards are all on top of each other but you can figure out which is which.) – David Richerby Jan 12 '17 at 14:09

The absence of any smoke from the tires is reason #1 to suspect takeoff.

The flaps definitely aren't fully extended, but they're extended more than the minimum for takeoff. This means that more analysis has to happen before taking the position of the flaps as definitive:

If the runway is short, both takeoff and landing would have more flaps than if it were long, and the somewhat intermediate flap setting there would make sense for takeoff, not at all for landing. If the runway is long, you'd expect a lesser flap setting for takeoff, and the flaps shown might be reasonable for landing. Don't know what their practice is to always land full flaps or not.

Given the GA hangars in the background, I'll go out on a limb and guess that the runway isn't 10,000' long, and thus the flap setting is more appropriate for a short-field takeoff, rather than this being landing on a long runway.

Beyond that, the absence of spoilers isn't definitive, they take some amount of time to extend upon touchdown. Likewise, reverse thrust deployment wouldn't occur until the aircraft is definitely on the ground, so its absence in the photo doesn't drive any conclusion either way.

My best thought is, it's a takeoff.

  • The GA planes don't imply runway length, as there may be more than one runway on the airport. – kevin Jan 11 '17 at 21:35
  • The OP stated he took the picture at KBFI, and so it must be 13R, which actually is 10,000 feet. The other runway is only usable by aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or less, which excludes a 747... – Michael Hampton Jan 12 '17 at 2:43
  • Actually, I believe the runway is 31L (same runway, opposite direction) – abelenky Jan 12 '17 at 14:20

I can conclusively say the nose of the plane was about 2920 feet from the end of the runway proper (not including the extended area).

Notice the second door of the middle hangar lines up with the nose of the plane. To see where the next building starts just look at the roof line.

enter image description here

Here's my line of sight from the photographer lined up with the doors of the second hangar. enter image description here

Here's the measurement using google maps enter image description here

This agrees with the placement of the plane as described by J...

  • That is pretty impressive. I do know exactly where I was when I took the picture, and your red line, pointing to the hanger by Helicopters Northwest is extremely accurate! Congrats. :) – abelenky Mar 10 at 21:54

This is a picture of a takeoff:

plane taking off

This is a picture of a landing:

plane landing

As you can see, they look very similar. @JayCarr stated that the nose angle of the plane looked too high for a landing. However, it is within the safe range airplanes are required to keep while landing (what that is, I have no idea). However, @fooot stated that the angle of the flaps indicated it was landing. That is not completely true. Yes, the angles of both the nose and flaps can indicate landing, but they can also indicate takingoff. Judging by the flaps, state of tires, and likeliness of the picture being taken in landing or liftoff, I would say this plane is landing.

If you wanted to take a picture of a plane taking off, I'm sure you would have done it while it stil had some of its wheels on the ground. But if you wanted to take a picture of a plane landing, you would probably do it while it was still in the air.

I could be right, I could be wrong. But I do encourage the community to solve this puzzle.

:D

Pictures taken from ScreenHeaven and FearlessFlight

(If my picture sources weren't accurate and reliable sources of information, please let me know)

P.S. Just a tip, @JayCarr, you said "The wheels would not be level if it were in the air". The wheels are not level. If you notice the angle of the white line on the runway, you'll see that this picture was taken at a tilt. If you turned the image (or your head) a bit to the side, you would see some significant differences with what you stated in your answer. However, you could find something significant, as well. Good luck!

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    The question is about a B747; your take-off photo is a B777 (the pair of 3-wheel bogies is distinctive) and your landing photo is an A340 (the three 2-wheel bogies are distinctive). Your photos are much higher off the ground and from different angles. In short, it's impossible to compare them. – David Richerby Jan 12 '17 at 14:53
  • Also, given that the photo in the question is not level and has chopped off the plane's tail, I don't think you can conclude anything from the timing of the shot. No offense to the asker but it's not a well-enough taken photograph that you can assume that any feature of it is deliberate. – David Richerby Jan 12 '17 at 14:54
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    Both aircraft are taking off. – Hugh Jan 16 '17 at 10:30
  • I'm pretty sure the A340 one cannot be a landing picture - the nose up attitude is much too high. It would contact the runway tail first. It's either taking off or going around. – Cpt Reynolds Jul 11 '17 at 18:32

protected by fooot Jan 12 '17 at 17:03

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