Ask the pilot

The mystery of Air Force One en route to Baghdad -- could it have happened as the White House claimed?


Patrick Smith
December 13, 2003 1:30AM (UTC)

The first time I saw it was in the fall of 1992, walking along the Revere Beach sea wall in the company of my parents' Weimaraner. It approached from the northeast, head on, lumbering down the coastline, and my first thought was Aer Lingus. The heavy afternoon sun had turned blue into green, the forward fuselage taking on the distinctive mossy hue of the Irish national carrier, whose 747s were a regular sight at Logan International.

But then, as it swung closer and into profile, green went blue and I could see, clearly and with some astonishment, that it was Air Force One.

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The plane passed noisily above me, less than a thousand feet overhead, then sank past the hills of Beachmont toward runway 22L. I remember it fishtailing slightly -- a wobble, a yaw, a crooked bank -- and silently chuckled. Not even the president's plane is immune to the push of a good tight crosswind.

It was a handsome sight. One thing that has always pleased me about Air Force One is its relative aesthetic modesty. The newest version, a modified Boeing 747-200, carries virtually the same markings as the old 707 it superseded -- the sweeping forward crown, simple tail hash and subtle gold highlights. The muted blues, in concert with a couple of judiciously placed flags and the presidential seal, give the plane a dignified, statesmanlike demeanor. Whether the obfuscation between military and civilian is intentional I can't say, but it's definitely present and serves an important symbolic purpose.

In 1962 John F. Kennedy's modified Boeing 707 became the first aircraft to carry the Air Force One designation. Prior to that, various propeller planes were supplied by the armed forces or contracted commercially for the job. In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt traveled to the Casablanca conference in a Pan Am flying boat, the "Dixie Clipper," celebrating his 61st birthday in the plane's dining room. Roosevelt himself had created the Presidential Pilot Office to supply the president and his staff with air transportation.

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(I know this, in part, because the White House Web site tells me so. "In 1944," the page reads, "President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the creation of the Presidential Pilot Office's [sic]..." Something about a blatant grammatical error in such an official location really worries me. As of press time my letter to the webmaster has not yet resulted in a fix.)

The vice president, if you're wondering, also has a jet at his disposal. Air Force Two is a 757 decked-out in a likewise blue and white pattern.

There isn't an Air Force Three.

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Elsewhere heads of state and their officials do it similarly -- or differently, depending. Some travel in standard military transports or will borrow jets from their country's national airline. Others arrive in stylish airborne limos not unlike our president's. The government air wing of the United Arab Emirates, a country about the size of metro Washington, owns seven large jets, including two 747s, a 767 and an Airbus A300. In nearby Qatar, the pride of four VIP aircraft maintained by Qatar Amiri Flight is an immaculately outfitted Airbus A340.

During the 1990s at Logan, it wasn't unusual to spot a Saudi Arabian Airlines (then called Saudia) L-1011 TriStar, chocked and secured for the weekend at the north cargo ramp. As the story went, members of the Saudi royal family would drop in for three-day shopping junkets or visits to relatives at local colleges, making use of the huge jetliner the way one might borrow a company car.

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With junkets, Arab countries and Air Force One in mind, George W. Bush's Thanksgiving charter to Baghdad International Airport (formerly Saddam International, soon to be renamed in honor of the Bush family, Donald Rumsfeld or Halliburton), quickly became an event of scandal and intrigue. The trip has been amped vociferously by both sides -- those who concocted the braggadocio, and those who've considered it overhyped and cloaked in unnerving secrecy.

If you missed it, Dubya's out-and-back power lunch was pulled off so clandestinely that only a handful of government officials even knew it was happening. The president was escorted in an unmarked car from his residence in Texas, shuttled secretly to Washington to pick up a selectively chosen, gagged and bound press corps, then whisked to Baghdad for a brief airport dinner with troops and a handful of Iraqi officials. The flight operated under radio silence using a partially phony flight plan.

Even before Bush arrived back in the United States, a strange and controversial story began to circulate. On the way between Andrews Air Force Base and Baghdad, somewhere off the coast of England just before sunrise on Thanksgiving morning, a British Airways crew noticed Bush's distinctive blue and white 747 whizzing past. Surprised and curious, the Brits queried a London air traffic control facility in Swanwick, U.K. (No, they did not call "the tower" as stated in some reports. They radioed an upper-altitude facility used by flights operating between North America and Europe.) "Did I just see Air Force One?" asked the B.A. pilot, coming within a microphone click of blowing the mission's cover.

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Air Force One's commander, hardly skipping a beat, shot back cryptically with, "Gulfstream Five," a somewhat bizarre reference to a smaller VIP jet often used by government officials. The B.A. pilot, now clued in, answered, "Ohhh..."

I chuckled at this, imagining the scene: the semi-slumbering B.A. fliers in their cockpit, the glow of the instrument screens, a crack of orange dawn along the horizon. Then, craned necks and quizzical looks: "Did you ... do you think...?"

Trouble is, it may never have happened.

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British Airways says none of its crews made such a comment, and White House spokespeople have twice amended the account. Their latest version claims it may not have been a British Airways crew who chimed in, but somebody else's. That airline has not been identified.

In short order I received a flurry of letters -- some very nervous-sounding, reeking of suspicion and distrust, others more calmly sarcastic -- curious to hear what I may know or think about flight plans and the ability to identify passing jets over the ocean in predawn darkness.

Why all the secrecy to begin with?

Commenting on the secrecy aspect is not necessarily my game, though I find it vulgar how the administration has, in the end, spent as much time and effort promoting the covert adventure as planning it in the first place. Part of that blame belongs with the press, yes, for running with the ball further than it needed to, but was the idea to ensure the president's safety or to sell the story to the media as some made-for-the-networks excitement? It pains me to do so, but I can already envision a TV reenactment: the furtive escape from Crawford, the encounter with the startled foreign airplane, the perilous lights-out landing at Baghdad.

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That said, certainly a level of hush was in order. It was barely two weeks ago that an Airbus A300 operated by cargo giant DHL was almost destroyed over Baghdad by a pair of shoulder-fired rockets. Badly damaged, the plane survived an emergency landing. (If anybody deserves a docudrama, it's the DHL crew members, who having lost an engine, a portion of the left wing, and suffering complete hydraulics failure, were still able to nurse their wounded widebody back to earth.)

But if you draw a line between Washington and Baghdad, you'll notice the plane should not have been anywhere close to the coast of England...?

Sorry, but this one is a dead end. Check again my archived dissertation on "great circle" routings. It's perfectly logical for the plane to have been traversing those latitudes.

Was the encounter with the British Airways jet fact or fiction?

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We don't know for sure, and at first I found the alleged exchange too much of a confusing non sequitur to be the work of White House fiction.

But something stinks. For starters, had Air Force One's identity been revealed to a civilian aircraft over the Atlantic, how, exactly, would the whole mission have been jeopardized? The president's appointed 747s (in fact there are two of them) are known to fly sans commander in chief and sans the "Air Force One" call-sign for training or repositioning purposes. Is it not something of a stretch that the plane's mere existence in the sky near England would have revealed the scheme and necessitated a scrub? Ah, there's Air Force One, must be on a secret flight to Baghdad, better call CNN.

Had commander Mark Tillman replied, "No sir, just a government VIP flight," the querying pilots, if in fact they existed, would have more than likely forgotten the entire episode before reaching their destination.

Or else, perhaps more sensibly, he could have said nothing. Why, after all the layered concealment, would Air Force One's pilot tempt fate with a smart-alecky wink-wink retort over an open frequency?

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Ostensibly to ensure security, Air Force One filed a flight plan identifying itself as Gulfstream V. What are the legal ramifications of filing a false flight plan?

It probably violates some regulation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), but flight plans are extremely complicated -- altitudes, routings, and even the destination can be changed en route -- and opening this can of conspiratorial worms is destined for trouble. And, after all, while I mean no offense to all you civic minded i-dotters and t-crossers out there, this was the president of the United States on, like it or not, a relatively dangerous trip. If that mandates the tweak of a flight plan or two, I don't see any problem so long as nobody is put in danger and no international protocol is shattered.

But wouldn't it be dangerous for other aircraft if the controllers are provisioning for a much smaller plane, and a 747 shows up instead?

Not really. The Gulfstream V and the 747 travel at about the same height and speed, even if the latter is about nine times the size and weight of the former. The biggest worry would be the separation between the 747 and nearby aircraft for wake avoidance, chiefly applicable at lower altitudes and in more congested airspace, such as when climbing after takeoff or maneuvering for landing. This would not have been a prime concern for the approach into Baghdad.

If the Gulfstream V (or, to most pilots, a "G-Five") reference seems entirely mysterious, know that the president does not always travel in his signature 747 but occasionally flies in a much smaller, top-of-the-line brand of executive jet known as, yes, a Gulfstream. There are Gulfstream IIIs, IVs, and Vs all assigned to Andrews AFB.

Regardless of which he's riding on, its radio call-sign is "Air Force One." Officially, Air Force One refers only to the call-sign designation and is not the title of any aircraft itself. If, as during training, test flying or repositioning, our illustrious head of state is not aboard, a completely different identifier is used over the radio.

I'm convinced there is no way a crisscrossing pilot would have been able to see Air Force One. It doesn't seem likely that transatlantic flights should come close enough to make out the markings on the side of the jet!

In fact it's often very easy for pilots to visually identify one another's make and markings. Over the Atlantic, minimums require only a thousand feet of vertical separation (altitude). Horizontally it's much more stringent, but airplanes can pass above and below one another along identical tracks (imagine upper/lower decks of a bridge), with only a thousand feet between. In my own experience I've called out the liveries of nearby flights many times. Those red cowls of Virgin Atlantic and the green-topped fuselage of Aer Lingus make for snappy recognition. Don't underestimate what a 747, with 230-foot flanks and a 60-foot tail, looks like against empty sky, even at a distance.

The only problem here is the level of daylight, the precise specs of which are unknown and likely to remain that way. In true predawn darkness, identification would have been more or less impossible. (Planes sometimes display "logo lights" illuminating their liveries, though we'll assume Air Force One's, if equipped, would've been switched off.)

That autumn day in 1992, it was Bush's father safely ensconced in Air Force One as it roared past me above Revere Beach. Does anyone remember when Bush the elder, at a Mediterranean summit in 1990, hot-dogged off the coast of Malta in a speedboat, and how the gesture made news for days afterward? His son has already outdistanced him with a tailhook carrier landing and a surreptitious slip into a war zone.

Of course, we've already forgotten that Tony Blair made it to Iraq last May, fresh on the heels of the invasion by British and U.S. forces. Even without the nourishment of a turkey dinner, Blair managed to tour a school, a police station and a military compound.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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