So, ICAO(or FAA) Controls everything in the air, but is Air Force One on top of it, or does Air Force One need to follow the ICAO's (or FAA's) regulations?

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    $\begingroup$ Do you suppose Air Force One would mind crashing into a B777 while over the Atlantic, outside of radar coverage? I suppose they would be on a preplanned flight and following all the rules everyone else followed, As far as over US territory is concerned, they file a flight plan like everyone else. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Brass
    Jan 3, 2019 at 6:18
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    $\begingroup$ I believe Air Force One would be considered a "state aircraft" under the Chicago Convention, which means it would not be subject to ordinary ICAO regulations for civil aviation, just the general undertaking that it operate with "due regard" for the safety of civil aircraft. Of course, not being subject to the regulations doesn't mean that they won't generally comply with them in the interest of safety or that military regulations don't apply. $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2019 at 6:29
  • $\begingroup$ Related $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Jan 3, 2019 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ The more interesting question would probably be asking not about Air Force One (as Terry pointed out, a military aircraft), but about Executive One. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jan 3, 2019 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ @aCVn Considering the FAA is part of the Department of Transportation - an executive department - I suspect Executive One still wins, considering that the President can simply issue an Executive Order to the FAA telling them to do what he wants. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jan 3, 2019 at 19:08

2 Answers 2


First, ICAO has no authority over aircraft movement in and of itself. It's a United Nations agency that, as Wikipedia puts it "codifies the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure safe and orderly growth." Individual sovereign nations accept whatever they want of what ICAO codifies, and it is the governing aviation authority of the individual nation that has the power.

Now, in the U.S., military aviation is not governed by the FAA, the civilian agency that for the most part complies with ICAO recommendations as do most countries. However, the U.S, government has a common air traffic control system for both military and civilian aircraft. If, for no good reason, an aircraft violates the air traffic rules, the FAA will deal with that for civilian aircraft, the military for military aircraft.

Air Force One is a military aircraft. Further, as @Zach Lipton has pointed out, it is a "state aircraft." Further, whichever airplane is carrying the President of the United States is designated Air Force One (or Marine One or Navy One) only when carrying the President, and the President is the Commander-in Chief of the military. I don't know how all that sorts out, but practical considerations dictate a general adherence to the "rules of the road" so to speak.

And finally, it's accepted practice that the captain of an aircraft is the final authority aboard the aircraft for the operation of the aircraft, regardless of who is aboard.

Better to rule by consensus than by diktat if there's time for consensus.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd also point out that the first rule any good leader - political, business or military - should take to heart is "Unless there is an emergency, the rules apply to me as much as they do to anyone else. If I have time to ask myself if the current situation counts as an emergency, it doesn't count as an emergency." $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2019 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ So technically, the pilot of Air Force One can overrule the President of the United States... I can just imagine how that conversation goes. Instead of "I changed my mind, let's go to Bahamas." "Anything you like, you're the President.", we'd get "I changed my mind, let's go to Bahamas." "Sorry Sir, no. We can't do that safely.". $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jan 3, 2019 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Shadur I especially like that first rule. Not quite the same seriousness, but I was once in line in full uniform for security screening in Sao Paulo, several places back from the x-ray machine. One of the screeners saw me and motioned for me to jump the line. I declined saying that I was not operating but flying as a passenger. A businessman and frequent flier behind me, accustomed to the high-handedness of Brazilian airline captains, complimented me on my action. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jan 3, 2019 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ As the 2010 Polish Air Force Tu-154 crash show, even when the cockpit is full of VIP, the PIC should have the guts to be PIC.Unrelated persons in the cockpit trying to overrule the PIC probably was a part of the reasons a major part of the Polish top were killed. $\endgroup$
    – Lenne
    Jan 3, 2019 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ "In the case of Air Force One, I suppose the President could simply issue an Executive Order to the Captain. Including one making himself Captain, if he so desired." Response: Very well sir, I relinquish command of the aircraft. You have the controls. $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2019 at 22:21

The PIC is always the final authority for operating his aircraft. That said, pilots will follow ATC instructions when able and advise when unable. This includes miltitary aircraft in civil airspace. (The military have their own rules in their own airspace--and in combat, of course.)

AF1 is not particularly special in terms of regulations; they just won't accept ATC clearances or instructions they don't like, whereas other aircraft are expected to take what they get unless they're legitimately unable to comply. In a sense, AF1 always gets the priority handling that others only get after declaring an emergency, but how that priority works isn't any different. I don't know whether there is an actual regulation documenting that or it's just tribal knowledge within ATC; the latter would be entirely reasonable given it's just one plane.

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    $\begingroup$ "they just won't accept ATC clearances or instructions they don't like" is that pretty common ?! $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Jan 3, 2019 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie For AF1? Not too common since ATC usually asks them what clearance they want and then gives it to them verbatim. There are occasional glitches, but it's not like anyone in ATC isn't aware of AF1's special status. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Jan 3, 2019 at 17:53

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