My Experience Flying On Air Force One
Over the weekend, View From the Wing wrote about some of the amazing aspects of the Presidential airplane, Air Force One. It’s not easy to get the chance to ride on Air Force One, but there have been ways to see it. Some people may have had the chance to visit the old version of the aircraft located at the Ronald Reagan Library. Others may have experienced a model of the plane that visited cities on the East Coast. It will be interesting to see what happens to the current aircraft when they are retired in 2025, but the George and Barbara Bush Foundation have requested one of them for permanent display at the President’s museum.
Since Monday marked three years since my first Air Force One flight, I thought I’d share my experience flying on the special aircraft. From 2017-2018, I was a Presidential Stenographer. In that role, I had the opportunity to travel around the world with the President of the United States. It was a tremendous honor, and one of the greatest benefits of the job was flying on Air Force One.
What Is A Presidential Stenographer?
Many people are not familiar with the role of the Office of Stenography in the White House. The job of the stenographers, often referred to as stenos, is to produce the official transcripts for the President, Vice President, and other senior administration officials that serve as the official record for the White House.
Stenographers are career federal employees, rather than political appointees. Of course, that is by design. Stenographers are there to catalogue history, and they do not have a political agenda.
Wherever the President goes, there is usually a stenographer following closely behind. As a note, stenographers are not present for private meetings and in calls/meetings with foreign leaders that are not open to the public.
Air Force One
Technically, any plane that the President is on is referred to as Air Force One. But most people associate the VC-25A, a modified Boeing 747, so often seen on television as Air Force One. During my time at the White House, I rode on both the VC-25A and the C-32 (a modified Boeing 757).
My First Ride On The Presidential Aircraft
After starting in June 2017 as a stenographer, my boss planned to take me along on my first trip on Air Force One. Presidential travel takes a little skill. There are constant movements, and if you miss a movement you are out of luck.
There is one priority in Presidential travel, and that’s POTUS. Miss a movement and end up missing the plane? You’ll be looking for another ride home. The plane/motorcade/helicopters wait for nobody, aside from the President. So my boss wanted to take me along to shadow her to see just how the process works. My first trip was traveling to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the President was scheduled to visit Kirkwood Community College for a tour and remarks.
The First Trip
The journey starts outside the West Wing, where staff members get in vans to be whisked over to Andrews Air Force Base. Upon arrival at the vans, staffers get a detailed schedule that lays out, minute-by-minute, the movements for the trip. Staffers leave for Andrews earlier than POTUS to ensure they are on the plane and ready to go before Marine One even leaves the South Lawn (remember: there’s only one customer on these trips!)
Upon arrival at Andrews, I give my name to the Air Force staff located at the bottom of the stairs. Just like that, I’m now on the plane I’ve watched on the news with amazement for years.
Stenographers have a designated seat on the aircraft, but only one seat. the seat is on the right side of the plane by a window, and it’s a little bigger than a domestic first class seat. It also has a foot rest that comes out to get some much needed rest on a long flight. My boss will be taking that seat today, and I am seated in the guest cabin. That cabin is where members of Congress, friends, and other VIPs usually sit. When you’re flying on Air Force One, you never quite know who you might run into.
We went to the event and then returned to the plane. Upon boarding, there was an envelope on my seat that had a certificate in honor of my first flight. The package also had a view goodies as mementos for the moment.
Calling My Mom and Husband From Air Force One
One of the coolest things about flying on Air Force One is that you never really lose contact with the ground. On my first flight, my boss encouraged me to call somebody special in my life, so I wanted to call my husband and mom.
When you pick up the phone, you are instantly connected to an Air Force communications officer. You give him the name and number of the person you need to call. They call the person. Of course, my mom screens her call and didn’t pick up the first two tries. Thankfully, she picked up on the third call.
The communications officer says, “Good evening, ma’am. You have a call from Air Force One. Do you mind if I put you through?” My mom was all in her glory when she received that call. It was a happy moment for both of us as I told her about my first trip. My husband also thought it was a pretty cool call to get.
The most amazing thing about Presidential travel is how smooth it all is. When the President boards the aircraft, the steps are pulled away and we’re rolling. The same happens when we arrive. In all of my flights over the course of a year, there was only one time I was delayed. That was when a terrible thunderstorm rolled in as we were returning from Suffolk County, NY.
Ironically, that was the same day Reince Priebus was fired as Chief of Staff via Twitter as we deboarded Air Force One to return to the White House.
All movements are a smooth transition. We go from the plane to the motorcade or helicopters to the venue back to the plane. Travel moves fast, and most times you are barely on the ground for more than just a couple of hours.
Staff Pay To Fly On Air Force One
One of the things that shocks many people is that staff actually have to pay to fly on the Presidential aircraft. Every segment of the flight costs a few dollars, which covers the cost of bottles of water and snacks that are available throughout the plane.
In addition, staff have to pay for their meals, which can actually get pretty expensive. When I went with the President to Mar-a-Lago for Christmas, there were just a few of us on the plane. I had a steak and egg breakfast, that cost me about $25. On cross-country trips with four or five stops, I’ve gotten bills for $75 for meals.
Keep in mind, there is no time to go and get food when you’re traveling with the President. I always ate when given the chance because you never know when you’d eat again.
On shorter flights, the staff provides you with a bagged meal. I never once had a meal that I didn’t like, even when it was a bagged meal. The food is absolutely delicious.
Differences From Commercial Travel
Of course, it goes without saying that flying on Air Force One is considerably different than flying commercial. I’ve never experienced flying private, but I assume it’s much more in line with that experience.
In Saturday’s speech, the President mentioned that Air Force One has a number of televisions. There are televisions throughout the plane. One of the coolest things is watching the news live as Air Force One took off and arrived, knowing we were on the plane. It was just a cool feeling. Those same TVs also have entertainment. We all chose movies together on the way to Japan, and we all watched a movie on the overnight flight to Switzerland. An interesting note: the “baby Air Force One” has individual screens for passengers, similar to a commercial aircraft. That luxury actually doesn’t exist on the larger aircraft.
One of the most amazing things that’s different between flying on Air Force One and a commercial aircraft is the plane is not held to the FAA standard rules for flying. For that reason, seatbelts can be taken off and on whenever passengers feel like it. As we would begin our descent, I would usually take that time to use the bathroom as it was likely the last bathroom I’d probably see for a few hours. This is like a functioning office, so people are moving about during the entirety of the flight.
Another benefit is you have a staff ready and willing to help you with anything you may need. The flight crew will save your meal if you’re in the middle of working, and you can request it later on. If you have an IT issue, there is a dedicated staff for that. The President’s nurses and doctors are always onboard and will help with anything you might need.
During my 13 months at the White House, I was able to visit some incredible places. I saw Pearl Harbor on our way to Asia, where I visited China, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and the Philippines. I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. My first solo trip was to see the commissioning of the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier. I was able to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York and see a dozen world leaders up close and personal.
After a devastating hurricane struck Puerto Rico, I accompanied the President to visit the storm-ravaged territory. One of my last trips was Charlevoix, Canada for the G7 Summit. On that same trip, the flight staff took me up to the command center and cockpit, where I got a tour and the chance to speak to the pilot. And I visited the southwest border and attended events all around the country. Air Force One took me to many of those wonderful places. It was truly an honor to see some of our country and world from the windows of Air Force One.
Air Force One is an amazing aircraft, and it is incredibly exciting to get the chance to fly on it. The history of the current version of the aircraft adds some of that excitement. But overall, it’s a tremendous honor to fly with the President of the United States around the world. I hope you enjoyed me sharing this experience!