Replacing Air Force One: will 747-8 production remain open, or can 777-300ER become AF One?

Bloomberg has this story about the prospect of replacing Air Force One “early in the next decade.” Aviation Week has this story as well. The Aviation Week story links to the Dayton Business Journal, and reports that the USAF wants a commercial derivative, four-engine airplane for delivery in 2021 or later. This description, of course, says “Boeing 747-8″ without saying so.

The assumption is that Boeing will provide the 747-8I (Airbus already said it will not bid the A380), but the timing could make it problematic. At August 31, there was a backlog of just 53 8Is and 8Fs, or 30 months at the current production rate of 1.75 per month–to 2016. Boeing has had several dry spells for orders. The 8I isn’t selling well at all and the cargo market hasn’t recovered yet, suppressing sales for the 8F. How does Boeing keep the 747-8 production going until delivery of Air Force One replacements “early next decade”?

Boeing has a couple of 8I campaigns we’ve heard about, hoping for orders this year. These include British Airways and Lufthansa Airlines and a third airline we haven’t yet identified. Lufthansa is expected to announce a wide body order any day now. The publicly acknowledged competition has been between the Airbus A350 and a combination of the Boeing 787-10 and the yet-to-be-launched Boeing 777X. But the 787-10 entry-into-service is planned for 2018 and the 777-9X in around 2020, followed a year later by the 777-8X. Airbus is believed to have delivery slots earlier that either Boeing airplane.

So what would entice Lufthansa to buy Boeing with the later delivery slots? According to our market intelligence, Boeing has offered LH the 747-8I at steep discounts to serve as an interim airplane. This not only would keep LH in the Boeing camp but would help keep the 747-8 production line open. An order from the second of the three airlines would also be needed in this scenario to keep the line open. These orders would also enable Boeing to avoid another write-off for the 747-8 program, our market intelligence says.

But does Air Force One have to be a four-engine airplane? The Secret Service reportedly demanded such when seeking a replacement for the Boeing 707, but according to Wikipedia, the USAF specified a plane with at least three engines and 6,000 mile range. Air Force Ones (there are two of them). When the RFP for the new AF One was issued, in 1985, twin-engine, long haul airplanes with ETOPS were still early in their service, eliminating the prospect for the twin-engine Boeing 767. The Secret Service was said to want more than two engines for safety.

But today, twin-engine ETOPS airplanes and the engines are incredibly reliable. The Boeing 777-300ER has a dispatch reliability second to none as far as we can tell and the GE90 engines that power it are superb. Could the Secret Service and USAF accept a 777-300ER bid? (We doubt the Secret Service or the USAF would accept the new, unproven 9X as Air Force One.)

The 777 certainly doesn’t have the panache of the 747, but operationally there certainly is nothing wrong with the airplane and engines and there is no question about the line being open to 2020 or even somewhat beyond.

The Air Force also needs to replace the 747-200 that serves as the flying command post for the President and the top military brass. This is the white 747 that was spotted over Washington (DC) on 9/11/2001, the day America came under airborne attack by Al Qaeda. But the news articles don’t mention replacing this aircraft.

61 comments on “Replacing Air Force One: will 747-8 production remain open, or can 777-300ER become AF One?

  1. The E-4Bs are much older than the VC-25As, and they are more closely related to the B-747-200B, than the AF-1 is. They are used heavily and have lots of hours on them. At one time a few years ago the USAF was looking to retire them by 2012. But, there is no other airplane suitable for the E-4 mission, so it is most likely going to be the B-747-8. The USAF could issue an RFP to replace all 4 of the E-4Bs, and then wait another year or so and issue the RFP for the AF-1 replacement. The E-4 replacement needs to be 4-6 airplanes, and the USAF has already said the VC-25 replacement will be 3 airplanes.
    The E-4 replacements could begin in 2018 or 2019, but this still doesn’t get them to the VC-25 replacement dates.

  2. “How does Boeing keep the 747-8 production going until delivery of Air Force One replacements “early next decade?”

    They could reduce the production rate even further and stretch it into the beginning of the next decade. I think Boeing will do everything it can to keep the line alive until AF1 needs to be replaced.

      • If the needs for the POTUS are so stringent, surely one would get the best product available, no matter where it comes from.
        I remember reading that during the opening phases of World War I, the combatants were still buying products from each other because what they required was either unavailable domestically or the domestic version was so much inferior. It was done through intermediaries and the practice was stopped after a few months. As far as I know, there is no state of war existing between the USA and neither Europe as a whole nor any individual country within it.
        Seriously, does this inability to buy a European product for the president stem from hatred, envy, insecurity, pride, money or is it something else? I really would like to understand. Could someone please explain?

    • Perhaps – hear me out here – that is the intent? If the US government want a quad in 2021, and the 747 doesnt make it – then they just *have* to buy an A380 – takes the political tension out of it. If they really wanted it – why not just buy one earlier?

    • EADS have said they would not bid for it on the basis that they want to bid for military contracts and tie any bid to an increased manufacturing footprint in the US. For a contract that covers only two planes, this approach doesn’t really work very well.

      “Our strategic intent when we bid on our major programs is to industrialize in the U.S. to support production. The likely number of aircraft involved with the Air Force One program would not support our strategic model for growth in the U.S.”

      Source:
      http://www.businessweek.com/news/2013-09-11/eads-sees-simplified-defense-portfolio-through-corporate-revamp

    • Because the US will certainly demand all critical parts and systems for the AF1 are produced locally, or at least under US control.
      So if Airbus is willing to hand over their Toulouse production facility, all the IP that goes into building an A380 and sign over the certificate of airworthiness to US control (Boeing maybe ;) ) – then the US may be willing to add the A380 to the evaluation of alternatives.

      where it simply will not beat the 777. If they can’t find a good argument, a bad one will do (my opinion on why the 330 lost the KC-X competition)

    • @Javier, “Why not an A380?”

      Maybe, it’s too big? Maybe, it can’t land in as many airports? Maybe, it’s too much trouble and expense for Airbus to go through all the required security processes? Maybe, there are still residual or even current feelings European government/industry are protectionists and don’t know it? Maybe, the USAF doesn’t want to be held hostage some foreign company for spare parts or even the whole plane at a higher price even though it’s contracted (recall EADS threatened to stop work on the A400M for more money)? Maybe the USAF is sensitive to buying presidential aircraft from a company that still has some level of foreign government golden ownership and influence?

      BTW, by now, we all know the nomenclature for US presidential aircraft is “presidential aircraft,” or “SAM nnnnn” (special air mission). “Air Force One” is simply the traffic control call sign when the President is on-board almost any aircraft in flight, usually USAF aircraft. Would new aviation enthusiasts be confused to think the USAF is replacing their B757 based C-32′s for bigger B747-8′s?

    • A380 is the best plane, but it cannot land on ANY airport. Thats the reason why Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande dont have a 380 neither

      • “Best” is what meets requirements, so if the USAF needs a full double decker four engined aircraft for presidential transport, then the A380 will have to do. But, as A380′s, “cannot land on ANY airport,” they just might bring along a few A320′s in tow for the final leg of the trip.

        I guess Merkel and Hollande use Airbus A340′s and a variety of smaller aircraft.

      • Not in style.
        Ms. Merkel doesn’t bring a full fledged “invasion army” to any international meeting.
        The A310 used to be quite sufficient for the task.
        The upgrade to second hand A340s was primarily done for better non stop reach.
        Hollande’s predecessor Sarkozy upgraded to A330 for government travels in France.

      • @Uwe
        This past June Chancellor Merkel took their A340 all the way to Belfast for the G8 summit. Couldn’t tell if she took and “invasion army” along or not in this video:

        President Hollande arrived there in a Dassault Falcon tri-jet all the way from France. A couple of months ago he took a sales trip to China aboard an A330. He returned with an order for 60 Airbus aircraft:

  3. BA (IAG) purchasing the 748I is deemed unlikely, any such decision fly’s in the face of comments made during a probing questions & answers at the annual shareholders meeting several years ago.

    The BA speaker didn’t actually rubbish the 748I at this venue, but made clear the 380 held significant benefits on BA’s route system over the Boeing product.

    • This is my thought too, as I remember Willie Walsh stressing how this was an either/or order. But then that was 6years ago, and things change I guess

  4. Is the 2021 delivery date for the completed AF1 or just the basic airframe? The current AF1s had the basic airframes completed in 1986, but the conversion to AF1 wasn’t completed until 1990.

    If the 2021 date is operational delivery, stretching the existing 747-8 line enough should be possible with just a few new orders.

    • They could always build two or three white tails for AF1, store them for a few years and then convert and deliver them in the early 2020s.

  5. I wonder if Turkish AL is the mystery potential customer. They have reported as being about order VLAs for a while. I can’t see BA going for the 747-8I.

  6. Why does it have to be 4 engines? My guess is that even though ETOPS twins are very reliable, when one engine quits you really want to land as soon as reasonably possible, but with a quad you could keep going to get to a better place. Remember the BA 747 that lost an engine shortly after takeoff (was it LAX or SFO?), and they pressed on to London anyway.

      • Sorry, Scott. I didn’t mean to suggest it was a wise decision, but it does demonstrate that losing one engine on a quad still leaves the pilots more options than they would have on a twin.

      • If an engine is going to fail it is much more probable to occur on takeoff or climbout when the engines are under maximum duress i.e. A380 QF32. Should a failure occur, a twin is required to have the same engine-out climb capability with 50% thrust as a quad with 75%.

      • Toyuths; not exactly. The required engine-out climb gradients for quads are greater than for twins. Example, second segment climb (from gear up to 400 ft alttude) quads have to shoiw a 3% climb gradient, twins 2.4%; final segmant (to 1,500 ft) quads 1.7%, twins 1.2%.

  7. Surely it will take 1+ year of installation of equipment that has nothing to do with the typical production line 748i plus the Air Force would need time to test it before it could enter service so I could see it being worked on and finished for most vendors well in advance of 2021. I assume the freighter will be in production beyond 2021 as there really is not a replacement however small the market is so it is only the intercontinental model’s components that come into question IMO.

  8. I think BA may go for a small number of frames as the A380 is too large for some markets and the 747-8I can be used on a greater number of routes. LH seems to be pleased with the 747-8I so far and maybe a few more orders will be forthcoming.
    I wonder how much the 747-8I has improved since its first EIS considering the number of PIP’s that have been incorporated lately?

    • I think BA may go for a small number of frames as the A380 is too large for some markets and the 747-8I can be used on a greater number of routes. LH seems to be pleased with the 747-8I so far and maybe a few more orders will be forthcoming.
      I wonder how much the 747-8I has improved since its first EIS considering the number of PIP’s that have been incorporated lately?

      The first set of PIPs were chiefly designed to actually bring the 747-8i up to spec. I don’t think there have been any PIPs so far that improve on that.
      BA – Honestly, I don’t see them ordering 747-8i. They already evaluated the A380 vs the 747-8i, and we all know the result of that. The only way I can see this change would be if Boeing offered 747-8i as bridge aircraft as part of a 777X deal – but whether BA would be keen to add another sub-type when they only just have A380s coming on line (which they have additional options on, too), I’m not so sure.

      As for LH – they cancelled one of their 747-8i orders as Boeing kept one of those earmarked for LH as a test plane. They are yet to reinstate that order – this may happen as part of the widebody order rumoured for later this month; I could even see them converting an additional 5 options for the type. But consider that LH already have a combined 38 A380 and 747-8i delivered and on order… I don’t see them ordering big additional numbers of either type. Total VLA fleet at LH is probably going to be around 45 in the end.

      As for the 747-8i in general: Boeing have been claiming that they’re actively engaged in 747-8i sales campaigns and were confident of more orders for years now, and nothing has ever come of that. So while I’m not saying orders are impossible, it’s certainly an uphill battle, and I’m taking a “believe it when i see it” approach.

      • The FUBARed state of that frame was the lever to cancel for LH.
        The reasoning though may have been one of finetuning fleet capacity.
        How they handle their options in the future will probably give better
        indication on LH’s position re the 747-8i.

        Apropos: what arguments would speak against LH purchasing bog standard 777-300ER in a Boeing fire sales campaign?
        After the order peak (150) in 2011 ( due to A350-1000 vacating 2 years of production ?) and only 73 in 2012 the 2013 orderbooks probably won’t go beyond 50 ( 35 till now ).

  9. I don’t see the secret service compromising on four engines. I am reminded of a joke, or maybe it was indeed an anecdote. The executive of one of the engine manufacturers, Rolls I believe, was once asked why he only flew in aircraft with 4 engines. His reply, “Because there are none with 5 engines”.

    I suppose with planning, the USAF could buy the frames early and store them until required. Would be a budget issue, I am sure but if it absolutely has to be a 747-8, then that would be one way to go. I wonder if buying used airframes for Air Force One is an option. Ok, just kidding.

    • I would recommend Lufthansa and 4 engines.
      In case of an emergency take off 3 engines are better than 1.
      A 777 looks highly reliable for airlines but no airline would take of with one engine missing.

      • see my comment above: Should an engine failure occur after takeoff, a twin is required to have the same engine-out climb capability with 50% thrust as a quad with 75%.

        four-engine airplanes can be ferried with three engines; the 4th is still there but not running. It takes a specially certified crew to do it. Obviously no passengers on board.

  10. While the notion of a 773-ER sounds like a viable option, the 748I will take it. Boeing needs as many 748′s as it can take and if that means one from Uncle Sam then so be it.

  11. Despite mythical reliability boosted by suppliers, 777s make regular diversions. Check the web. If one engine has anything, divert to the closest airport. Quads can fly on. Dispatch reliability doesn’t even tell half the story..

    LH will buy A350-1000s and maybe 777X later on (346s aren’t that old, they have 748 already).

    AirForce ONE? IMO DoD and Boeing will sit around the table and strike a deal to build 3-4 748s this decade. There no real alternative. A380 is politcally unacceptable.

    • Yes, quads “can” “fly on,” but as we know it depends on the captain’s judgement based on a number of factors including the severity of the engine failure. We can think of at least a couple of A388 single-engine-out instances where they landed asap, like QF32 and EK413.

      Now, were there any advocated QF32 continue on, holes in wing and all? The EK flight had a better chance at making it all the way to Dubai from Sydney even with its #3 engine HPT all blown out, yet the captain didn’t fly on and decided to landed.

      Then, not only do 777′s divert to nearest on engine out. Don’t all twins big and small?

  12. Isn’t it true that a twin engine after an engine out situation has to reduce altitude? That should not hold true with trijet/quad and is probably part of the login behind the requirement. I think the idea is that in case of war, AF1 is expected to stay airborne for days being refuelled mid-flight. This might be impossible to achieve with twin in the engine out situation.

    • Unless an aircraft is already rather low, when it loses an engine it will have to drift down, regardless of the number of engines. During flight planning over areas of high terrain the route has to consider an engine failure and the consequent drift-down to the engine-out ceiling. Of course, as fuel is burned off it might be possible to climb back up to some extent.

  13. Perhaps they could acquire and adapt a nearly new 747 after the production line has closed down? Alternatively encourage Boeing to build a couple of extra frames speculatively. The PR value, as well as keeping in the good books of its biggest customer would weigh heavily with Boeing I believe.

    • Maybe Airbus can offer 4 A340-600s each at say $15 Mill just to prevent “negotiations” getting too cheesy… More seriously I guess an advantage of the 747-8i could be many systems, procedures, infrastructure can be “copied” or even moved into the new aircraft.

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  15. Why does the president need a new aircraft? I guess the current AF1s don’t have so many hours one them. A B747 is designed for 20k cycles and 100k flight hours. Even if the president would fly each day once, he would have 55 years before the cycle limit is achieved. Even then, a good inspection program may keep the aircraft aloft for another 30 years.
    In 2020 there will be many airlines desperate to get rid of the B747-8I. Maybe team up with an airline to fly a future AF1 for a few years and then buy it and modify it.
    In case of the VH-71 it became clearly visible, that a clean sheet design will cause huge modifications and obscene costs.
    Germany bought two old A340-300 and modified them for a total cost of ~200 Million EUR.

    The A380 is good or probably by far the best aircraft for carrying passengers (even better than the new twins), and pretty bad for anything else. Guess why no VIP version has been sold yet.

    • Schorsch, the two VC-25′s are NOT command posts. That role is fulfilled by four much older [1972 and 1974 vs 1987] 747-200B’s designated E4B.

      Back in 1971 the USAF bought four 747-200B positions from QANTAS. The first two rolled out in 1972 with JT9D’s; that’s all there was back then; the 2nd pair rolled out two years later just before the first KLM 747-200B’s with GE CF6-50E’s. Two maybe four airplanes had their engines, pods, and struts changed from JT9D-7F’s to GE CF6-50E2′s, rated at 52,500 lbs SLST.

      The E4B’s are true Doomsday machines. They can be and have been refueled in flight, are stuffed with mission equipment, and hardened against nuclear EMP. But their engines, systems, and airframes are forty years old.

  16. If QANTAS was a potential customer for the 747-8i, they’re probably reviewing their recent order history, including the purchase of the 747-400ER, so the 777X, as well as the A350-1000 could be options there.

    Who else, apart from BA, LH & Delta, could order it in enough numbers not just to sustain 747-8 production long enough for USAF contract, but also to keep open a sustainable market for spare parts for 30 or so years — till 2050?

    In a recent documentary on the US presidential aircraft, one person said the engines of the VC-25′s are sold to airlines at the first sign of wear and tare. With the 747 no longer the driving force in the airliner world it used to be, spare parts and maintenance for it may become more expensive over time, and here, the smallish 747-8 fleet is a case in point. Of course, no cost is spared for maintenance of the presidential fleet, but it may be a factor against it.

    ###

    My comment on the Bloomberg article:

    The President’s international trips aboard these presidential aircraft showcase key American strengths in technology, high-tech manufacturing and integration – the prior two taken as economic power – then also the aircraft symbolizes diplomatic strength and, of course, military strength – or might – if you will. It has to be designed and built in America or the idea fades. While the office of the president will from time to time fall short of these obligations, duties – as is the case currently with diplomacy, the aircraft will have to provide a consistently high image. So therein is the mission. Good luck bidder(s).

    I think an A380 POTUS chariot could send a very strong message about the US position on free trade, and so on. Customization, systems would still be American – indeed, for the aircraft itself, many components are US-sourced. Of course, said chariot could diminish the aerospace technology flag-flying AF1 does for the US.

    ###

    Another comment of the same Bloomberg article on why Europeans aren’t flying the A380 as an executive transport:

    European heads of state do not use the A380 because anyone thinks it’s “crappy”, they don’t use it because the European Union has several heads of states, none of which could justify to their constituency the costs associated with operating so large an aircraft. The US, of course, has a single leader, and projects economic, trade, diplomatic, and military power simultaneously which makes a dedicated large transport indispensable.

    ###

    All of the above just to say, that while the secret service, USAF will have overriding authority on this thing, the aircraft does carry significant symbolism for the US, so I’d guess Congress would decide its ultimate fate.

  17. Everyone remembers (though some try to forget) the competitions Boeing wasn’t allowed to loose. The rest of the world witnessed, chuckled and moved on. Now IMO it’s clear only one aircraft/ OEM qualifies & pride has no budget. So practicle would be to cut the window dressing, order 3-4 -8s, put them in a dry hangar & start modifying them for 202X EIS.

    • This really isn’t much of a competition. Even if we combine the E-4B and VC-25A replacement totals, it is fewer than 8-10 airplanes. That is a relatively small order, even for the VLA aircraft.

  18. The folks doing the deciding are overly concerned with efficiency like an airline is. They also come from a 4 holer mentality in large part as evidenced by the heavy transports over the years. The others with a say, the secret service are just like the public who equate more engines as meaning more safe. I really can’t see the US public buying into the President flying on an airbus. It’s also a source of prestige for Boeing that the president flies on the whale. These factors will cause Boeing and the government to find some mutually agreeable date for delivery of a -800

  19. I am pretty sure that if the Air Force were to sign a very long-range pre-production contract, Boeing would be happy to build 3 airframes to minimal completion. They could store them for a few years and then take all the time necessary to integrate all the required subsystems (communications, etc.) at a slower-than-usual pace.

    Boeing would likely do that to break even or even take a minimal loss in exchange for the prestige of continuing to be the exclusive supplier of Air Force One.

    Besides, I think the US throws Boeing enough money on the side for other contracts to ask them to do us a solid on this one.

  20. C-17 seems like a good plane to replace the presidential plane. The limousine carrying C-17 planes can act as decoys if they are also painted in presidential colours. They can land almost everywhere. There is a rear ramp to jump out of in case of emergency. Decoys are already integrated into the aircraft. It has refueling capability. All that is lacking is a cozy interior.

  21. Isn’t the US the land of the more or less permanent travel trailers?

    A flying trailer park then could be deemed as “in style” ;-)

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