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The Real Global Command Center in the Sky

Dec 2, 2017
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An E-4B in flight (USAF photo)

We’re looking forward to “On Board Air Force One,” the documentary that airs Sunday night at 8 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel. The producers were given unprecedented access to the aircraft, its crew and support personnel during the recent transition period. The film includes George W. Bush’s last trip to the Middle East–including a visit to Baghdad–and Barack Obama’s first flight as commander-in-chief.

While the documentary promises to be entertaining and informative, a minor correction may be in order. On its web site, National Geographic identifies the VC-25 presidential aircraft (Air Force One is the call sign used when the commander-in-chief is on board) as a “global command center in the sky.” While the VC-25 has impressive communications capabilities, the aircraft would not serve as a flying command post in the event of a national contingency.

That role is reserved for another military aircraft, the E-4B. Like the presidential transport, the E-4B is based on the Boeing 747-200 airframe. However, there are key differences between the flying command post and the VC-25. The E-4B, dubbed the National Airborne Operations Center (NOAC), has extensive hardening for electromagnetic pulse and other nuclear effects. It carries a crew of up to 112 people (including the president) slightly larger than the capacity of the VC-25.

At least one E-4B (and crew) are kept on alert at all times. In the event of a national emergency, the aircraft would rendez-vous with Air Force One or Marine One, allowing the president and his senior advisers to manage the crisis from the NOAC.

There are noticeable differences in the appearance of the VC-25 and the E-4B. The NAOC aircraft has more austere paint scheme, and a slight (but noticeable) hump aft of the flight deck. That blister is believed to contain communications gear.

Air Combat Command provides the flight crew for the E-4B, which is assigned to the 55th Wing at Offut AFB, Nebraska. But alert aircraft sometimes deploy to other bases, including Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio; Andrews AFB, Maryland; Seymour-Johnson AFB, North Carolina and Columbus AFB, Mississippi. NAOC operations are directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and executed through U.S. Strategic Command, which also provides many of the airborne battle staff personnel.

It will be interesting to see if National Geographic mentions the role of the E-4B in supporting the commander-in-chief. When the president travels abroad, the NAOC is always in tow, usually operating from a U.S. airfield in the region. Those deployments are never publicized, but they are a key element of any foreign trip by the commander-in-chief. If the event of the unthinkable, the E-4 would become the flying command post, not the VC-25.

No wonder it’s sometimes referred to as the “Doomsday Plane.”
ADDENDUM: Viewing the program, our suspicions were confirmed; there was no discussion of the E-4B in the documentary about Air Force One. But the mission of the NAOC remains unchanged and it remains our dedicated “command post in the sky,” in the event of a national contingency.
However, last night’s documentary did offer a unique perspective regarding Air Force One’s activities on 9-11. As the terrorist attacks unfolded in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the presidential jet quickly scrambled from Sarasota, Florida (where Mr. Bush was participating in an education event) and headed over the Gulf of Mexico, which had been cleared of other air traffic.
With fighter escort, the VC-25 eventually headed to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, where President Bush made a brief public statement. In his comments to the film makers, Mr. Bush indicated that the Barksdale stop was necessary because (in those days), Air Force One lacked an onboard video downlink capability–a deficiency that has since been corrected.
After leaving Barksdale, the presidential aircraft flew on to Offut AFB, Nebraska. Offut is home to U.S. Strategic Command, which still utilizes the famous “SAC Underground,” the hardened, subterranean command center that is buried 60 feet below the surface. While at the Nebraska installation, Mr. Bush participated in a secure video teleconference with his advisors, then gave the order for Air Force One to return to Washington.

Of course, Offut is also home to the E-4B fleet. One of the unanswered questions about 9-11 is why the president elected to stay on Air Force One, despite the availability of a better crisis management platform at Offut.

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