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New, High-Tech Air Force One on Order

The Pentagon wants a new, upgraded Air Force One to fly around future presidents, but don't expect any radical new aerospace technologies.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

The Pentagon wants a new, upgraded Air Force One to fly around future presidents, but don't expect any radical new aerospace technologies.

The new model, however, will be able to fly longer on a tank of gas, avoid trouble and allow the president to communicate better with government, the military and the public.

"When it comes to a mission like this, you never want the president to be an early adapter of new and uncertain technology," said Richard Aboulafia, president of the Teal Group, an aviation consulting firm based in Fairfax, Va. "Unless there's a performance improvement, it's going to be trailing edge rather than cutting edge."

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Plans for a new Air Force One appeared in the latest version of the Pentagon's aviation plans, according to Defense News. Officials haven't said which model they plan to purchase, but it is likely to be an updated version of the current Boeing 747 VC-25.

If military officials stick with a U.S. manufacturer like Boeing, that probably means using Boeing's latest 747-800 series, which has more powerful and efficient engines, and better aerodynamics. The 747-800 series made its maiden flight in 2010, and is only being used for cargo transport.

The first passenger liners are expected to be delivered by Boeing to several airline firms this year. The current Air Force One -- there are actually two aircraft which carry that designation when the president is aboard -- have been in service since 1990, and the new ones won't be ready until 2019 or 2020.

Because of electronics and communications upgrades after 9/11, the aircraft's power demands are "straining" the current engines, Defense News said.

Newer aircraft have more powerful engines that can operate more gear, according to experts.

"You would want to go with an airplane that can stay aloft for a long time using less fuel than a current airplane and maybe even fly higher," said Snoori Gudmundsson, assistant professor of aerospace at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The only bigger (but not longer) aircraft is the Airbus A380, made by the European consortium, EADS. But given Congressional home state politics, it's likely that the Pentagon would pick an American manufacturer, according to Barry Watts, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and a former Air Force program analyst.

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Watts says Air Force One is designed to flex the nation's political and diplomatic muscles, just like the arrival of an aircraft carrier.

"When it lands on your ramp in a foreign country, it projects American power and presence and influence," Watts said.

Unlike most commercial aircraft, Air Force One can refuel mid-air and its on board electronics can withstand an electromagnetic pulse, according to the White House website. It also has a mobile command center and advanced electronics that allows the president to function in the event of an attack on the U.S.

The president, his staff and the traveling press have 4,000 square feet of space on three levels, including a medical suite that can be used as an operating room.