On the ground, the White House is the pre-eminent structure associated with the president of the United States, but in the sky that honor belongs to Air Force One. The public’s fascination with the ‘flying White House’ remains keen, though unlike the president’s Washington address, few civilians have seen the famous aircraft up close. In Air Force One, an upcoming one-hour special for PBS, National Geographic Television hopes to reveal what only the privileged few have seen.
Two identical planes, SAM-28,000 and SAM-29,000, usually fill the role of Air Force One (the term technically refers to the radio call sign for any aircraft transporting the president). Each is an extensively modified Boeing 747-200B, measuring 231 feet, 10 inches long (the equivalent of a full city block) and 63 feet, five inches high (taller than a five-story building). Leg room is not an issue. In fact, the 4,000 square foot interior features a conference/dining room, quarters for the president and the first lady, and an office area for senior staff members.
NGT producers negotiated for four years to gain exclusive access to the legendary airplane and its premiere occupant. Led by director Peter Schnall (of New York-based Partisan Pictures), the doc crew ultimately managed to go behind the scenes as the White House Military Office prepared for a three-day trip. And since filming on board continued both pre and post-election, interviews feature both former President Bill Clinton and current President George W. Bush.
While the modern-day access is an important part of Air Force One, the aircraft’s history also figures prominently. ‘You cannot tell the story of Air Force One unless you tell its history,’ Schnall said recently in an interview. ‘Air Force One, in all its magnificence and glory, was, and is, the vehicle by which the president can bring his policies and the American ideals to places where he had never been before, like China, where no president had ever been until Nixon journeyed there. Kennedy flew across a divided Berlin, landing in West Berlin to call for the end of the Berlin Wall. That tradition has continued over the past 50 years of Air Force One’s existence.’
Budgeted at over US$500,000, Air Force One will premiere on PBS on July 11.