June 12, 2019

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 the famous 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a modified Boeing 747-200 (there are two of them, actually), carries virtually the same markings as the old 707 it superseded: the sweeping forward crown, the Caslon typeface and simple tail hash.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.

Then, last summer, Donald Trump announced his intentions to change Air Force One’s livery. 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 said he’d prefer something “more American” instead.

Understandably, this made a lot of people nervous. While the paintjob could stand some updating, this is a man whose aesthetic leans heavy on the gold and gaudy — more Saddam Hussein than Jackie Kennedy — and isn’t remotely humble. The resulting scheme was bound to be frightfully garish.

Among those who found the idea distressing included 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 the 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.”

This week, a new design was revealed. On Wednesday, in an interview with ABC News, Trump held up a poster showing a revised Air Force One, in a livery timed to debut with the delivery of two replacement 747-8 aircraft, on schedule for 2024.

Seeing the headline, I held my breath. I was ready for all manner of over-the-top Trumpian fanfare: star-spangled banners, angry eagle talons, fireworks, maybe a portrait of the Donald himself on the tail. But when I clicked and took a look, I almost couldn’t believe it. It’s completely inoffensive. Bland and boring as hell, but inoffensive.

The fuselage is navy blue across the bottom, with a bold red cheatline riding above. The “United States of America” font appears mostly unchanged. I’m a huge fan of old style cheatlines — that’s the horizontal striping that runs across the windows, and is rarely seen anymore — and this one is handsome.

Is it better than the design we already have? No. And if a change was really necessary, any of fifty other designs would have been better. But it’s respectful, dignified, and it could have been a lot worse. Indeed, one doubts that Trump himself had much input, other than to sign off what, most likely, was created by a team somewhere.

The biggest negative is the blue bottom, which is too heavy and too rigidly defined. The blue should curve as it meets the forward wing root, similar to the Jackie Kennedy hue that’s there today, then reverse taper beneath the tail. And that American flag. It’s far too big. I recommend a simple tweak to the existing tail instead. Turn the blue hash mark to red, and there you go. See my suggestions, below.

Like it or hate it, there’s no guarantee this thing will ever see the light of day. No sooner did Trump show his poster on television when U.S. House of Representative Democrats passed an amendment requiring Congress to approve any changes to Air Force One’s design. Trump himself could well be out of office before the new 747s enter service, and the whole thing could easily be scuttled.

Trump, though, told ABC’s George Stephanopolos that he’s doing this “for other Presidents, not for me.” Maybe, but nonetheless Congress is doing the right thing. This shouldn’t be any 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.

Trump also says the new 747-8s will be “much bigger” than the current, 747-200 variant. That depends on the definition of “much,” I guess. The 747-8 is 18 feet longer than the -200. The wingspan difference is just under 29 feet, or about fourteen feet per wing, which isn’t a lot when the total span is 225 feet.

Slightly better?

Officially, “Air Force One” is merely a radio call sign, not the name of a particular aircraft. Any United States Air Force plane with the President on board is Air Force One. Normally this is the 747 we’re familiar with, but occasionally it’s a much smaller 757 or a Gulfstream jet. The President’s helicopter, operated by the U.S. Marines, is “Marine One.”

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 in 2017, 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 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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58 Responses to “Statecraft”
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  1. mitch says:

    [more info for Dan Ullman]

    Boeing Field [BFI] has a large Flight Test hangar, but it is not adequate for major modifications such as AF1.

    The 747 has been a familiar sight at BFI since 1969, when BFI was the base for the 747’s five-airplane flight test certificate program. Plus all the variants including the 747-200B,747F,747C, 747SP, 747-400, plus the 747-8F and -8I. Plus decades of flights by RA001, N7470, the 1st 747. It is now preserved at BFI’s Museum of Flight

    Every Boeing jetliner since 1954’s 707 prototype, the “Dash-80”, has been flight tested out of BFI.

  2. mitch says:

    [this is a reply to #29, Dan Ullman, but the original version somehow it ended up under #10, Cliff Schiappa. Sorry Cliff. Try again – in two parts]]

    Dan, all Boeing presidential aircraft until now have been purpose-built for presidential use. None have ever been “used” i.e. seen any prior airline use. The current VC-25s were built “green” [empty] in Everett then flown to what was then Boeing’s secure Wichita modification facility. There they remained for several years of very extensive [and expensive] modifications – Boeing Field did not have the facilities

    The new 747-8I AF1’s will be new, but not purpose-built. The airplanes are the first two of now-defunct Transaero’s five-airplane 747-8I order [the remaining three were never built] . They were rolled out during November 2015, just as that Russian[!] airline was shutting down. They have been very carefully stored by Boeing ever since. According to public info on-line at, they are line numbers 1519 & 1523, MSN’s 42416 & 42417. Boeing has always held title to both aircraft, so they can be delivered to the USAF as new, with full Boeing and GE airframe and engine warranties and performance guarantees.

  3. Loren says:

    Of course he wants to change it. It doesn’t say “TRUMP” on it!

  4. Tazian says:

    >>>… give the plane a dignified, statesmanlike demeanor. It’s patriotic in the best sense of the word: proud but a little humble.<<<

    The elegant livery of the Russian Presidential jet, an IL-96, also meets those criteria.

    Trump's desire to rebrand Air Force One makes sense:

    (a) "drain the swamp": remove the pervasive influence of so-called "Deep State" its minions and agencies. Air Force one is a visible symbol of that;

    (b) US losing international respect: Air Force One now a symbol of scorn and ridicule.

    Trump knows his marketing. He's right to rebrand.

  5. James2 says:

    To be fair, Trump’s personal 757 is… sedate… I suppose is the best word, at least on the outside. Was it the Smithsonian Channel that had a show featuring his airplane. Except for the “Trump” painted on the upper fuselage it could have been mistaken for an American Airlines plane.

    Still, I shudder to think what his idea of a proper Air Force One would look like.

  6. Matthew Barich says:

    I was so irritated that Trump used the “Air Force One” movie soundtrack as his walk-on music.

  7. Sam says:

    I just knew he would want to add more gold on the interior. But I didn’t think he would mess
    with the exterior!

  8. Harrow says:

    It is not his airplane.

    • Alan says:

      Unfortunately he does not realize that.

      No more than he understood that the DoJ was not his personal law firm paid to represent him personally.

      My hope is that whatever plans he has gets stalled in congressional review and we have a new game in November.

  9. Alex says:

    “Any United States Air Force plane with the President on board is Air Force One. Normally this is the 747 we’re familiar with, but occasionally it’s a much smaller Gulfstream jet.”

    Trump often also likes to use the 757’s typically utilized by the VP and other high-level staff on shorter trips in an effort to save fuel.

  10. Paul Schnebelen says:

    I can suggest a compromise. If Donny leaves most of the current design alone, he can replace the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on the sides with PRESIDENT DONALD J TRUMP. Somehow, I suspect he wouldn’t object…

    • Paul Schnebelen says:

      Snarky comments aside, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that someone wants to cast aside classic branding in favor of something more flashy/contemporary. Patrick has done a great job of documenting how airline after airline has cast aside a classic and instantly recognizable color scheme for something else because the prior design was, “like, old” – why should Air Force One be immune? I suppose we should be happy that Trump hasn’t suggested a design featuring a “Red White and Blue Generic Meaningless Swoosh Thing”, but it’s early in the process, so you never know.

      Unfortunately, with things as tribal as they are now, this whole thing may set off yet another fierce debate that may lead the Air Force to say, “Screw it. Boeing, paint the thing the same shade of haze grey we put on the rest of our planes and put ‘U.S. Air Force’ on the side.”

  11. PSimpson says:

    @Lewis Sponagle: You need to take this article in context, Lewis.

    Patrick, if he ever decides to give up piloting aircraft (hah!) could probably make a much better salary as a design consultant. I’m impressed and fascinated by his comments on air carriers’ livery, good and bad. This article seems to me to be less of a commentary on Mr. Trump and more of a reasoned discussion as to why changing the livery on AF1 would be a Bad Idea.

    Sure, there’s a bit of Trumpian humor in there as well, but the man’s taste, or lack thereof, is fair game, after that picture of him, Barron and Melania in that solid gold room at the top of the Trump Tower.

  12. Cliff Schiappa says:

    As a retired photojournalist, I’ve witnessed numerous arrivals and departures of Air Force One, including the 747-200’s maiden flight to Topeka, Kan., on Sept. 6, 1990 with President George H.W. Bush on board. (The destination was a tip of the hat to the state of Kansas where a good portion of the aircraft was built at Boeing-Wichita). This symbolic aircraft sends an important message to all who see, hear, or feel it… and that message should never be trivialized by the whims of its passengers. Patrick, as you mentioned, the aircraft belongs to the people, not the President.

    • mitch says:

      All Boeing presidential aircraft until now have been, built for presidential use. None have ever seen any prior airline use. The current VC-25s were built “green” [empty] in Everett then flown to what was then Boeing’s secure Wichita modification facility. There they remained for very extensive [and expensive] modifications.

      The new 747-8I AF1’s will be new, but not purpose-built. They were completed for the now-defunct Russian airline TransAero just as the airline shut down. They have been stored ever since. They will be delivered as-new, with full Boeing and GE airframe and engine warranties and performance guarantees.

      Boeing Field has a large Flight Test hangar, but it is inadequate for major modifications. The 747 has always been a familiar sight at BFI since 1969, when BFI was the base for the 747’s five-airplane flight test certificate program. Also the 1975 747SP. No matter the model, Boeing always does its flight testing out of BFI.

  13. Peter Fultopn Foss says:

    Well, there’s no accounting for taste, is there?

    From the first moment I laid eyes on that color scheme, I thought my peepers were playing tricks on me.

    The aqua-whatever color on the lower half was about as awful as it gets.

    The coup de gras was the engines painted the same color. Dreadful. And about as non-American as it can get. I have never seen that color used on any U.S. symbol.

    I saw it on the ground in South America in the early ’90s. Was no better “In person”.

    My only thought is perhaps the underside and engines are painted as they are is to absorb radar and make the plane less visible.

    I agree with Trump about its redesign, but only if he promises to stay a mile away. Otherwise he will splash TRUMP on its sides as he has everything else he owns.

  14. Anne Ehrlich says:

    Thanks! Great article. Hoping the plane does not get furnished and painted before Trump is out. I just can’t picture Joe Biden using a gold toilet.

  15. Lewis Sponagle says:

    Hello Captain,

    I too worked at Logan (30 yrs FAA air traffic controller), and ‘worked’AF-1 a number of times, so l can relate to your feelings.

    That said, however,l read your letters for their interesting commercial airline insights, not your political opinions.

    Should l find a desire to read insulting remarks about President Trump, l’ll read the NY Times (or Boston Globe).

    Let’s take a break,

    Lew Sponagle

    • Carlos says:

      I’ve reread Patrick Smith’s post and have found nothing insulting at all. Saying that Trump’s taste is “garish” and “gaudy” and that the Donald is “not remotely humble” sounds like an accurate and objective decription to me, not an insult.

    • Ty Fedak says:

      Peter Fultopn Foss- you called it very accurately.

    • Jonny says:

      I’m with you Lew. Patrick is just sneaky enough with his political comments that anyone who complains is “too sensitive”. He made a snarky comment in his express blog…something about some airlines livery being worse than kale and Donald Trump. It’s getting almost not worth coming to this blog…I say almost because despite his clear political views and desire to express them he is the best at what he does.


  16. Bruce Adams says:

    Well, what’s shown in the last picture is a bit ugly, but it might work. I think it is missing an LED sign down the fuselage that alternately flashes the American flag and “Vote for Don.” Hey, it worked for Goodyear. A pair of ladies’ panties flying from the top of the tail would be fitting.

    If it were a Navy plane, I could see every surface done in Haze Gray with black lettering.

  17. Anthony D. Flamini says:

    The current Presidential aircraft fleet’s livery is elegant and authoritative, it’s also very timeless and it shows our national stability. My opinion is to leave the plane and helicopter design as is.

  18. mollusk says:

    I was on the way in to dropping off my rental car one sunny afternoon when I saw Air Force One taxiing on the tarmac at Love Field, far closer to civilians entering the airport on Cedar Springs than the Secret Service probably allows anymore. First though: Wow – that’s a very shiny, very dignified, very impressive airplane. Second thought, after it was in the rear view mirror: oh wow. Southwest’s schedule has got to be really messed up now.

  19. Don R. says:

    Patrick, I applaud you for calling it as it is. Trump thinks money equals good taste and he is living proof that it is not true. Indeed, his “taste” (in quotes, because he has none) is tacky, garish, gaudy. His clothes do not fit well over his massive body (how could they possibly?), and he wears his ties so long that you’d think he’s hedging against the possibility that he forgets to zip up his fly after it has been unzipped for appropriate or inappropriate adventure. And there is also the notion that one’s personality can be a contributor to good or poor taste.Case in point…a racist liar bully boor could not have good taste no matter who dressed him.
    Patrick, you keep on speaking truth to power!

  20. Selek says:

    I love your take on Trump. It’s beyond accurate and I’m (fortunately) living in another country. He should leave AF1 alone! Period.

  21. Peter Adler says:

    While I have never personally been there, I have a sense that the Mustang Ranch and its decor would be the Louvre to what trump would be to Air Force One. With the exception of Melania, Trump lacks any sense of taste beyond the gaudy, ostentatious, and glaringly clownish.

    His personal appearance alone is sufficient to embarrass the Republic. do we need this man designing America’s sacred aircraft?

  22. Peter Adler says:

    While I have never personally been there, I have a sense that its decor would be the Louvre what trump would be to Air Force One. With the exception of Melania, Trump lacks any sense of taste beyond the gaudy, ostentatious, and glaringly gaudy.
    His personal appearance alone is sufficient to embarrass the Republic. do we need this man designing America’s sacred aircraft?

  23. PSimpson says:

    When I first heard of Trump’s plan to repaint AF1, I wondered why he had waited so long. My next thought: “Patrick Smith will be apoplectic.”

    Count me as one of those Americans with good taste. But, then, good taste seems to be unfamiliar territory for the current chief executive.

  24. Barry Gold says:

    “Of course he does”.

    That says it all.

  25. Douglas Rushton says:

    North Korea’s weird dictator had to use a chartered aircraft because no North Korean plane had the range or reliability to fly very far, or safely.

  26. Phil says:

    This is one of the iconic designs in the world. As a kid I remember seeing it on the tarmac at heathrow. Would be a shame to change it on the whims of a moron.

  27. JamesP says:

    Oh, good grief.

    If such an atrocity happens, his opponent could campaign on a platform to paint it back to the way it should be – and probably win on that point alone! That would be tax money very well-spent, IHMO.

  28. Mike says:

    The UK Prime Minister flies an A330 known to the RAF as the Voyager. It comes in a drab grey colour and moonlights as a refuelling aircraft. Behold its magnificence:

    How far we’ve fallen – Margaret Thatcher, for all her faults, regularly used Concorde as an official aircraft. And when they needed something with longer legs, the RAF still had some VC-10s configured for diplomatic purpose.

    Clearly the British thought that we might not have the biggest official planes, so we should have the best looking and loudest.

    And old-fashioned though they are, Russia’s Il-96 diplomatic planes are impressive beasts:

  29. Edward Furey says:

    Prisdential planes did have nicknames, formal or informal. FDR’s plane (a C-54) acquired the name “Sacred Cow,” which adhered through early Truman. When the plane was retired for a VC-118 (DC-6), Truman named the new ship “Independence.” That plane was retired shortly after Ike took office and replaced with a VC-121E (Constellation) which Mamie christened “Columbine III.” All of those planes can be seen at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson in Dayton.

    Smaller planes are also used when visiting burgs with short runways, including a Lockheed Jetstar that landed at the LBJ ranch. More recently, military transport versions of the DC-9 and 757 have served as Air Force One on occassion.

  30. ChrisW says:

    Our Prime Minister flies in a modified A-310. For shorter trips, he uses Canadair Challengers. All PM flights are operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force. The RCAF insists on neutral colours primarily to avoid being seen as a target.

    Our previous PM (Stephen Harper) insisted that one of the A-310s be painted in something more flashy (turned out to be the colours of his political party) and the Air Force resisted but eventually gave in, sadly. I think it still remains today.

  31. Dan Ullman says:

    As you folks may or may not know, since the jet age (maybe before) all of the Air Force Ones have been used aircraft. The reason for this is pretty straightforward, it is a hell of a lot easier to do background checks on a fairly small group of folks who are modifying than it is a full factory worth of folks that make it from scratch.

    A lot of the work on the 747-200s took place at Boeing Field (actually, it is King County International Airport). At that time, a lot of airlines still used the 747 for international flights so seeing 747s over Seattle on their way to SeaTac was common. Seeing a 747 on approach to Boeing Field was unnerving as hell. First, Boeing Field is a hell of a lot closer to Seattle so the approach was much lower and, second, the size of the aircraft plays hell with your prospective– that aircraft may very be at a thousand feet but it still looks like it is going to mow down the container cranes at the port. 🙂

  32. Stephen Stapleton says:

    “Any airplane with the President on board is Air Force One.”
    I am not sure this is completely true. If I may so bold and uppity to suggest, I believe it applies to any plane owned by the US Air Force, not to private planes flown by others. To bolster my outrageous claim, I quote Wikipedia, “Air Force One is the official air traffic control call sign for a United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States.” Thus, if President Trump were to fly his own private plane, I don’t believe it would be AF1.

    As a matter of trivia, the helicopter that often flies the President to AF1 or Camp Davis is Marine One.

    • Dan V. says:

      The president’s callsign varies depending on who is operating the plane.

      Air Force One, Marine One, Navy One, Army One, Coast Guard One. If the president is flying on a private or commercial plane, the callsign would be Executive One.

      • Stephen Stapleton says:

        Dan, thank you very much. That was just terrific and informative. You definitely put spring in my step today. I would like to update the Air Force 1 page on Wikipedia with that information on all the call signs. While I can put the citation to this website, I think the WikiPolice are going to demand more from me. Do you, by chance, have any source I could point to. Again, thank you so much for your post.

    • Edward Furey says:

      Presidents do not fly on commercial aircraft, as a rule. The last such instance I can recall was a trip Nixon made to California on a United Airlines flight (DC-10) in December 1973. The Secret Service was not happy with what was in essence a publicity stunt, nor I suspect, was the Air Force.

      • Dan V. says:

        Yes, they generally don’t fly commercial for obvious reasons. However, the protocol for Executive One is still the same, and the Executive One callsign has been used a few times in the past decade.

      • mark says:


        Was the passenger that day POTUS when he boarded and a regular citizen when he deplaned?


        • Alan Dahl says:

          No, Nixon was still President at that time. When Air Force One was used to fly Nixon to California after he resigned they changed the call sign to “SAM 26000” (the tail number of the aircraft) mid-flight as Nixon’s resignation became official.

  33. Tod says:

    The Australian prime minister travels on a modified 737

  34. Planely Obsessed says:

    I just hope they don’t paint the plane before the 2020 election. It would be a shame to see The Donald’s legacy last longer than it already has to.

  35. kevin willoughby says:

    I agree that the Loewy design is elegant and the Trump redesign wouldn’t be.

    Late one morning, President Nixon boarded Air Force One for a flight to California. His resignation became effective at noon (DC time) that day. This resulted in my favorite radio message to ATC: “Kansas City, this was Air Force One. Will you change our call sign to SAM 27000?” (From AF1 pilot Col. Ralph Albertazzie’s memoir, The Flying White House.)

    btw: in 1962, Kennedy was president.

    • Stephen Stapleton says:

      Stupid Question would that be “Sam two hundred seventy thousand” or “S – A – M – 7 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 0”? I am curious how it would be verbalized?

  36. Mark Maslowski says:

    I have to tell you, when I first heard of this, my initial thought was “I wonder what Classic Livery Man Patrick Smith is going to have to say about this?!” 😉

  37. Mark Maslowski says:

    I agree… AF1 represents the United States and not any individual. That being said, I am more than comfortable having Trump fly around in the plane that DOESN’T represent America!

  38. Kevin Brady says:

    Hopefully reason will prevail over ego, but I wouldn’t bet on it. His 757 is not too bad, but I’d rather see him keave AF1 alone

  39. ReadyKilowatt says:

    I’m sure it’s not a surprise to the readers of Ask The Pilot, but the king of the Netherlands moonlighted as a KLM pilot. Much more inspiring than a 747 full of politicians and press.

  40. Speed says:

    There’s Ed Force One, why not Don Force One?