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Statecraft

July 16, 2018

THE FIRST TIME I saw it was in the fall of 1992, walking along the Revere Beach seawall in the company of our family Weimaraner. It approached from the northeast, head on, lumbering down the coastline. My initial though was Aer Lingus. The 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. But then, as the jet swung closer and into profile, green went blue and I could see, clearly and with some astonishment, that it was Air Force One.

The plane passed less than a thousand feet overhead, then sank past the hills of Beachmont toward runway 22L. I remember it fishtailing slightly — a wobble and a yaw — and silently chuckling. Not even the President’s plane is immune to the push of a good crosswind.

It was a handsome sight. One thing that has always pleased me about Air Force One is the modesty of its livery. Conceived by industrial designer Raymond Loewy during the JFK administration, it’s a look that has gone mostly unchanged for six decades. And for good reason. If you ask me, Air Force One is easily the most elegant state aircraft in the world. The current version, a modified Boeing 747-200 (there are two of them, actually), carries virtually the same markings as the old 707 it superseded: the sweeping forward crown, the Caslon typeface and simple tail hash. The old-timey window stripe and subtle gold highlights, in concert with a couple of judiciously placed flags and the Presidential seal, give the plane a dignified, statesmanlike demeanor. It’s patriotic in the best sense of the word: proud but a little humble.

I bring this up because Donald Trump wants to change it. He wants to change it because of course he does. Declaring the plane’s robin’s egg blue under-trim a “Jackie Kennedy color,” Trump would prefer something “more American” instead. In keeping with his tastes and temperament, that can only mean a scheme that is frightfully garish and in-your-face. If he gets his way, two replacement 747-8 aircraft, on schedule for delivery in 2021, would wear new colors.

Those who find this idea distressing include U.S. Air Force Brass, countless Americans with good taste, and presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “Why would anyone want to discard an Air Force One design that evokes more than a half-century of American history?” asked Beschloss in Axios magazine. “Every time you see that blue trim and the words ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’ spelled out in that same typeface as an early version of the Declaration of Independence, it brings back JFK landing in Germany to speak at the Berlin Wall, Richard Nixon flying to China, Ronald Reagan stepping off the plane to see Gorbachev in Iceland and a thousand other scenes of Presidents in our past.”

Moreover, this should not be the President’s call. Air Force One belongs to the nation, not to the President, and its livery shouldn’t be subject to the whims of whomever is holding office at the time.

Barack Obama waves from Air Force One.       Reuters photo.

Reportedly Trump wants to renovate the plane’s interior as well. On his wish list, among other changes, is a bigger Presidential bed. This is a man whose aesthetic leans heavy on the gold and gaudy — more Saddam Hussein and less Jackie Kennedy, and not remotely humble — and we envision the final product looking something like a 1920s brothel. As for the exterior, here’s a (depressingly not far-fetched) rendition that Axios came up with…

Officially, “Air Force One” is merely a radio call sign, not the name of a particular aircraft. Any airplane with the President on board is Air Force One. In practice, though, almost always it’s the 747 we’re familiar with.

In 1959, Dwight Eisenhower’s modified Boeing 707 became the first aircraft to use 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.

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 Presidents. For reasons not entirely clear, when Kim Jong-un met with Donald Trump in Singapore last month, he arrived from Pyongyang in a chartered Air China 747.

During the 1990s at Logan, I remember, it wasn’t unusual to spot a Saudia Airlines 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 to visit relatives at local colleges, making use of the huge jetliner the way one might borrow a company car.

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