Monday, January 26, 2009

Air Force One

The National Geographic Channel has produced an outstanding one-hour program on the President's plane, Air Force One. It brought back some warm memories of my time working with CBS News in Washington.

President Barack Obama will be flying a cutting edge, blue and white Boeing 747 with tail number 27000. The plane was updated after the 9/11 terrorist attack because many limitations where revealed during the immediate post crisis management. Remember, President Bush was in Sarasota, Florida, when the terrorists struck. Fearing the president was also a target, White House staffers quickly got him airborne while at the same time all US airspace was shut down to commercial air traffic. The president could go anywhere. The problems included the fact he could not address the nation from 35,000 feet, nor could he convene or participate in important strategy meetings with his top aids. Consequently, the president had to put down in Kansas to address the nation. Further, he felt so out of touch he instructed his pilot to take him to Washington even though some felt the threat hadn't passed.

The new plane will has the most advanced communications and weapons technologies. A backup plane has been built, and both are identical. Only the one carrying the President is Air Force One. Each plane carries about 70 passengers and is built to be the president's "airborne bunker". The president's quarters are spacious, and include an office, bedroom, full gourmet kitchen and dining room with custom china. It appears that even the traveling press pool has comfortable seating.

I remember traveling on Air Force One as a guest of Ronald Reagan. He was returning to Washington from his beloved ranch near Santa Barbara, California. CBS News had assigned me as a producer on several presidential trips. Over a short time covering the White House I developed a good relationship with the White House staff.

This plane was a blue and white Boeing 707, tail number 27000, first used by Richard Nixon on his trip to China. I flew on the plane as part of the small press pool; it was quite an honor. We were jammed in the tail section of the aircraft, along with military support. We were near the kitchen and our seats seemed smaller than those in the coach section of a commercial airliner. As on a railroad train, some rows faced each other and were divided by a table. We ate reheated airline meals, peanuts and we were able to drink alcoholic beverages.

Apparently restless on our five-hour flight, Reagan stuck his head back into our compartment. He just smiled and waved and slipped out of site. We were not allowed to pursue him because most of the airplane was off limits.

We arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, where the Reagans transferred to a waiting helicopter, "Marine One", and took off for the 10-minute flight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Before disembarking from the aircraft I scooped up matchboxes, cigarette packs and napkins all stamped "Air Force One". They have since been stored somewhere in my house for a quarter of a century.

A couple months later I got a very personal delivery from the White House. I received an already framed certificate with a color drawing of AF-1 and the words "This is to certify that Joseph Peyronnin has flown on Air Force One as a guest of President Ronald Reagan".

Pretty cool.

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