The USAF's announcement that it's paying a whopping $16M to upgrade the interior on one of its four C-32A special air mission (SAM) 'distinguished visitor transport' aircraft, better known by their callsign when the Vice President is onboard, 'Air Force Two', has made headlines recently. Those are some big bucks to splurge on creature comforts, but custom private aircraft interiors are not cheap nor are they simple to design, fabricate, and install.
The official contract announcement reads:
Boeing Co., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, has been awarded a $16,072,212 contract for engineering support services for C-32 interior refresh second aircraft. The C-32A interior requirements are for an appearance more commensurate with presidential section of the VC-25A. The requirements necessitate a combination of the following: upgraded interior elements; refurbished interior elements; painting and cleaning; replacing double-seat configuration with triple-seat configuration, aft of Door 3. Work will be performed in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and various locations, and is expected to be completed by Aug. 8, 2019. This award is the result of a sole-source acquisition. Fiscal 2018 procurement funds in the amount of $16,072,212 are being obligated at time of award. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, is the contracting activity (FA8106-17-D-0002/ FA8106-18-F-0112). (Awarded Aug. 9, 2018)
So what will the USAF get for roughly the price of a new Citation Sovereign? We discovered some rare photos of the interior of the first C-32A that was remodeled and it is definitely a major aesthetic enhancement over the existing 1990s-era government-chic, formica-clad, blue and gray interior. Check out the comparison below:
Old C-32A interior:
New C-32A interior:
These rare photos of C-32A 99-0016's VC-25 (Air Force One) like interior were taken during Alan Gross's return flight to the United States after being held captive in Cuba for five years. This flight occurred in 2014, so this would have been the first C-32A upgraded.
We found another contract announcement from 2017 that is very similar to the recent one, but in that case at a cost of $18M. The announcement reads:
The Boeing Co., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, has been awarded a $17,999,843 undefinitized contract action task order (FA8106-17-F-0086) for engineering support services. Contractor will provide engineering support services for refurbishment of the interior for one of the C-32A aircraft. This includes an FAA-approved upgrade to the C-32A interior, consisting of Group A kits for one aircraft First Article, and installation and testing along with the identification and procurement of long lead items for one aircraft. Work will be predominantly performed in Greenville, Texas, and is expected to be complete by Aug. 31, 2018. This award is the result of a sole-source acquisition. Fiscal 2017 operations and maintenance funds in the amount of $7,029,193 are being obligated for the task order at the time of award. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, is the contracting activity (FA8106-17-D-0002).
Based on this information, the latest interior upgrade contract would be for a third jet out of the fleet of four C-32As.
So is all this expenditure worth it? From the information I have, frankly, no. Remodeling the aircraft's interior entirely seems wasteful. There have been light updates of the interior and technological insertion modifications over the years that did not include a full-on remodel job of these aircraft and the unaltered aircraft still seem perfectly usable in their present configuration. Remember, these are supposed to be working government aircraft, not flying palaces.
In addition, the C-32As are in the back-half of their service lives. The USAF is already working at coming up with a plan to replace them—and just as we reported—it will likely include a common base-platform that will also take on the E-6B and E-4B's role as well. This new single-platform strategy is being called NEAT, an acronym that combines the sought-after missions— National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC), Executive Airlift, Airborne Command Post (ABNCP), Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO).
This acquisition is still years away, but investing heavily into these aircraft simply to make them more luxurious seems like an outright waste. Defensive countermeasures, avionics, and communications upgrades, on the other hand, are not anywhere near as discretional and the C-32A fleet has received those enhancements in recent years.
It's notable that these aircraft support not just the Vice President, but also the Secretary of State and even the First Lady's travels, among others, as well as the President's under certain circumstances. The C-32A fleet has been regularly used to move the President around the eastern United States and especially into tighter airports near his golf resorts that cannot accommodate a VC-25. Getting the President into tight airports and acting as a spare to the VC-25 fleet has always been the mission for the C-32As of the famed 89th Airlift Wing, but moving President Trump around aboard C-32s has been a far more common occurrence than it was with his predecessors.
Trump famously owns his own 757-200—the same aircraft that the C-32A is based on—but his jet is far more luxurious. A C-32A is downright pedestrian in comparison and even a VC-25, although far roomier and more luxurious, isn't nearly as plush as "Trump Force One." It would be interesting to know if Trump and/or the White House requested better accouterments for shorter trips into smaller airfields. With that this possibility in mind, this line in the contract announcement is interesting, to say the least:
"The C-32A interior requirements are for an appearance more commensurate with presidential section of the VC-25A."
Trump certainly has taken great interest in the aircraft the White House uses and has run negotiations for Air Force One replacement aircraft more or less out of his own pocket, for better or worse. He has even gone so far as dictating what creature comforts will be like on the new 747-8i derived jets as well as how they will appear to the world. So it wouldn't be that surprising to find out he wanted to make changes to the C-32As he uses quite regularly.
I am fascinated with VVIP air transports and especially those that are used by heads of state. I have written more articles than I can remember exploring their intricacies and how they are used in certain situations, including some pretty obscure types, but at a certain point, it all just seems a bit ridiculous.
I don't think updating the surfaces and doing some reconfigurations to the passenger seating areas on a C-32 should be that controversial, but drastically upgrading the 'distinguished visitor' section at the cost of many millions of dollars shows a total lack of leadership from the front when it comes to spending control. That's money that could be spent on other things or not spent at all.
But don't just blame Trump, considering that one of the C-32s was modified before he took office, Obama is likely to blame too, as well as Congress who approves such initiatives. And really, the C-32As are just one small facet of a much larger private jet ecosystem that the Federal Government pays for year after year. How much of the travel it furnishes is really necessary and how it goes about furnishing it is a highly debatable and complex topic we can save for another time.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com