Air Force One Has This Unique Navigator’s Cockpit Station That’s Unlike Any Other 747

The USAF’s duo of highly modified VC-25A jumbo jets still have some surprising features even though they’ve been flying for nearly 30 years

byTyler Rogoway|
Air Force One photo


The two Boeing VC-25As that are often referred to generally as 'Air Force One'—which is really the callsign of any Air Force aircraft when the President is onboard—are incredibly capable and highly customized flying machines. From featuring one of the most elaborate flying communications systems in the world to being covered with directed-energy turrets that blind incoming heat-seeking missiles, these aircraft have taken the 747-200 design they are based on to the absolute max. And still, after decades of reporting, multiple books written and documentaries filmed, these flying symbols of America's might can still surprise. Case in point, last night I was watching the National Geographic documentary Inside Air Force One, when something briefly shown in the aircraft's cockpit grabbed my attention.

I have seen the film before, it's fabulous and they have continued to update it over the years, but never before did I notice a feature I had previously never known existed on these historic planes. The VC-25As cockpits are configured for four crew—a pilot, co-pilot, engineer and navigator. The pilot, copilot and engineer's stations have been shown for years, but apparently, a fourth console that is totally unique to these highly customized 747s is installed in what appears to be an enlarged rear cockpit area. 

VC-25A over the Statue of Liberty., USAF

The 747 was designed originally for three crew, with a set of extra jump seats being arranged on the other side of the cockpit, across from the engineer's cluttered instrument station. The next-generation 747-400 model that followed the first generation of 747s—the VC-25As are part of the classic 747 family as they were based on an advanced 747-200 configuration—cut the crew down to just a pilot and co-pilot with the help of modern avionics. On the VC-25A, a jump seat is still installed across from the engineer's station, but behind that is a large console and a seating position facing forward that is purpose-built for a navigator. Check out the screengrabs below:

The console has all the things one would find on an advanced navigational station, including digital navigational display, radar and barometric pressure altimeters, weather radar display, flight management system, DME-VOR, and other instruments and an area to inspect charts and do table-top work., Screencap

The only other 747 that has something similar, at least that I know of, is the E-4B National Airborne Command Center, but that configuration doesn't put the navigator facing forward in something of an open bridge-like layout like the one seen on the VC-25A.

After doing some searching, I was able to find some video that gives another glimpse of this station and of the cockpit layout as a whole. Check out the clip below starting right at the 2:30 mark and keep your eyes peeled, it goes by fast:

Video thumbnail

The need for the navigator aboard the VC-25A is likely multi-fold. Spreading out the crew's workload helps for what already is pretty much the most demanding and sensitive airlift mission in the world. Also, back in the 1980s when the VC-25s were ordered, automation and ease of navigation weren't anywhere near what they are today. But above all else, it probably has the most to do with the possibility that a VC-25 aircrew could find themselves flying in post-nuclear exchange skies—ones in which traditional navigational, air traffic control, and even weather tracking assistance may be all but non-existent. Being able to make it to a continuity of government site or to at least regroup with friendly forces would become a critical and highly challenging task. 

A rare shot of Air Force One and Trump Force One in Scotland, AP

The fact that Air Force One is as much a hardened flying command post as an airborne West Wing, being able to quickly make navigational changes on the fly could be key to aircraft and its VVIP passengers survival during a major crisis. The ability to evade conventional threats pointed out by the aircraft's electronic surveillance and countermeasure systems officers alone while still keeping a precise handle of exactly where the aircraft is in time and space would be essential during such an event. 

It will be interesting to see what the crew concept is for the VC-25A replacement aircraft that are based on the far more modern cousin of the 747-200, the 747-8i. These aircraft are already designated VC-25B. The 747-8i only requires a pilot and co-pilot to operate, so it's possible that the engineer position would be combined with the navigator's position, or both could be eliminated entirely, although that's doubtful. 

747-8i like the ones that will replace the two existing VC-25As., Boeing

A similar, but even wider scope replacement program is just spinning up for the four C-32As that are largely referred to as 'Air Force Two,' but are used for Presidential airlift missions into smaller airports or when a VC-25A is not available. The VH-3D and VH-60N 'Marine One' helicopter fleet is also being replaced with the new type designated VH-92. That is slated to reach operational status in 2020.

I highly recommend you watch Inside Air Force One, which you can do so for free right now on National Geographic's website linked here. It's an outstanding look at the VC-25 and its mission. The way I stumbled on the film again is I had tuned in an hour early by accident to watch to another National Geographic documentary—this one on the Secret Service—that premiered last evening. That two-hour film, named United States Secret Service: On the Front Line, was absolutely jaw-dropping. It went far more in-depth and unveiled way more operational details than anything I have ever seen on the subject before. It too is an absolute must watch. I talk a lot about all the labor and cost that goes into just moving the President from one place to another and keeping them safe in general. These two documentaries combined really convey this bewildering reality to an almost unsettling degree.

So there you have it, the full story of the Air Force One's four crew cockpit and the navigator's station that looks a bit more like it belongs on a starship than in an aircraft originally design from the designed in the late 1960s. 

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