Inside Air Force Two: Pence's plane more than a 'decent ride,' but not quite Air Force One

View Comments
Vice President Mike Pence waves as he arrives for an event at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga., Friday, June 9, 2017.

WASHINGTON – Frederick Manning felt like a kid on Christmas Eve, barely able to sleep, the night before he got to fly on Air Force Two to this year’s Super Bowl.

Manning, an Army staff sergeant who had been injured in Afghanistan, was standing in front of the plane when his host arrived.

“What do you think? Decent ride?” a pleased Vice President Mike Pence asked Manning.

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, pose in front of Air Force II with Army Staff Sgt. Frederick Manning and Army Sgt. First Class Charles Stanley, before flying to Houston for the  Super Bowl, Feb. 5, 2017.

Air Force Two is, in fact, one of the top perks of being vice president.

Pence is whisked by either motorcade or helicopter to the Air Force base where the plane, its side emblazoned with “United States of America,” is waiting. Airmen stand in salute at the base of the plane’s red-carpeted portable steps. Pence typically jogs up before turning at the top to wave, with the vice presidential seal on the plane’s open door behind him, before going inside. He even has a special "Air Force Two" flight jacket.

This perk got unwanted attention recently when Pence flew to Indianapolis for a Colts game, only to leave after the national anthem when some of the San Francisco 49ers knelt. Pence said the players were disrespecting national symbols. But critics called it a political stunt at taxpayers’ expense. (Air Force Two costs about $30,000 an hour to operate, according to the Air Force.)

Air Force Two:6 fun facts

Air Force Two:6 notable moments for Mike Pence

Pence has traveled frequently since taking office. He’s been to more than half the states and taken four overseas trips compared to President Donald Trump’s three. Pence even celebrated his 58th birthday — twice — on Air Force Two in June.

Still, there's no comparison between Air Force Two and the president’s plane.

“The difference between Air Force One and Air Force Two,” said U.S. News White House reporter Kenneth T. Walsh, “is like a first-class hotel suite versus sort of a discount hotel room.”

Air Force One, a customized Boeing 747, has 4,000 square feet of floor space on three levels, including extensive space for the president to work, sleep and shower. There’s more advanced security, communications and medical equipment — including a medical space capable of housing surgery. Two food preparation galleys can turn out meals for 100. And then there's also the presidential M&M’s stocked on Air Force One.

“The president’s life on the plane is much different from the way anybody else flies except maybe the pope or one of the sultans of the Middle East,” said Walsh, author of “Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes.” “You don’t get that for the vice president.”

While there’s a primary plane used by the president and a backup, the vice presidential transport comes from a fleet of military planes that are also used by Cabinet members and other top officials. (The name “Air Force Two” is the radio call signal for any plane carrying the vice president.)

The type of plane he typically uses, the commercial equivalent of a Boeing 757, is about half the size of Air Force One and holds 45 passengers.

Behind the cockpit is a specialized communications center that enables the vice president to conduct business anywhere around the world, according to the Air Force. But the next version of Air Force Two, which the military is starting to plan for to replace the planes that are now nearly 20 years old, will have better communications, increased flying range, more room for passengers and improved private work space. (One reason for the upgrades is they will lessen the “many capability gaps” with Air Force One when the president needs to take a smaller plane if landing on shorter runways.)

Pence's plane now has an enclosed private quarters with a desk, separate entertainment system, private bathroom and couch that can folds out to a bed. A map of the world hangs over the couch.

Just past the private office are a cluster of business class seats facing each other, usually with welcoming baskets of fruit.

More tightly spaced business class seats fill the rear of the plane for the media, Secret Service officers and aides who can’t snag a seat farther up. (Air Force regulations spell out how much ammunition the Secret Service can carry on board.)

The televisions on Air Force Two now are often set to Fox News. But Pence will also watch other news shows, NCAA basketball games, and — on long flights — movies. (On one of his overseas trips, Pence brought along his personal copy of “Hoosiers” — or what he calls “the greatest sports movie ever made” — for his captive audience.)

Because of the tighter quarters, media traveling with the vice president have a better proximity to him and his staff than reporters traveling with the president. Still, the reporters — who pay for their seats — can’t count on interaction. There’s the occasional invitation to the front of the plane or a visit by Pence to the back to chat or deliver goodies.

As Air Force Two made its way to Estonia in July, Pence and his wife surprised a Fox News correspondent with birthday brownies and cupcakes.

For Pence’s own birthday in June, the middle cabin was strung with red, white and blue streamers and “Happy Birthday” balloons to surprise the vice president when he boarded for a trip to Houston.

“What are you all doing?” Pence asked with a smile, according to the reporter who took notes for the rest of the press corps. “This is out of control.” (But not so out-of-control that his staff defied FAA regulations and brought along birthday candles. Still, Pence had a second birthday celebration with carrot cake on the trip back to Washington.)

Bob Grand, one of Indiana’s top GOP fundraisers and a veteran lawyer and lobbyist, was among Pence’s guests on his birthday flight. Other friends, family members, lawmakers and special guests such as wounded veterans or astronaut Buzz Aldrin have also gotten the Air Force Two treatment. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s young sons got a Pence-guided tour when the vice president traveled to Louisville, Ky., for an event in March. Ohio Rep. Pat Tiberi's daughters also got to check out the plane during Pence's April visit to the state.

“It can be a useful tool,” Walsh said of the ability to treat others to White House transport. “They like the attention. That’s an important part of flying for the president and vice president, the lobbying and the persuasion that can go on in this captive environment.” 

Being able to control a plane, including using it to build ties with lawmakers or supporters, has been a vice presidential perk for only recent decades.

Vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein has read memos written by Vice President Hubert Humphrey requesting a plane to give a speech, or asking to borrow the then-presidential yacht to entertain major contributors. An aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson would send the memo back with the request denied.

 “The plane, the entourage and the time which the vice president has is an enormous political asset,” David Beckwith, who was former Vice President Dan Quayle’s spokesman, said in an interview before Pence’s inauguration. “Party building has often been part of the vice president’s informal agenda.”

Pence also tries to make sure his aides each get a chance at some point to be on the plane. And if they’re from Indiana, Pence tries to invite them on his trips home so they can see family and friends, and have the thrill of stepping off of Air Force Two in their home state.

“Watching people the first time that they get on the plane, their reaction to it, it’s something that constantly reminds you what a truly special honor it is to be on that plane,” said Marc Lotter, Pence’s former press secretary.

It’s common for former presidents to say the biggest thing they miss about the job is Air Force One, Walsh said. And Vice President Joe Biden, who traveled more than 1.2 million miles during his two terms, anticipated the same reaction.

“I think I’ll miss not having to go through airport security,” Biden told National Geographic in December. “There's a huge difference between pulling up to the plane in a motorcade and getting to the airport two hours before your flight, taking off your shoes, unpacking all of your electronics and waiting in line at TSA.”

Contact Maureen Groppe at mgroppe@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mgroppe.

View Comments