"If the Wright brothers were alive today Wilbur would have to fire Orville to reduce costs"
Herb Kelleher, American co-founder of Southwest Airlines
FLYING

I remember my Gran giving me a small red plastic suitcase full of toys for my first long haul flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles, aged five, collecting cups and glasses with a trolley on a flight from there to Hawaii a couple of years later, and seeing Afghanistan flicker in the darkness on the way from Moscow to Delhi in 1987. 

Flying regularly from then on, I've flown 127 airlines, many now long gone, and others transformed almost beyond recognition. I've been lucky enough to be on the first flight of the Boeing 787 from Tokyo to Hong Kong, and to experience glorious business class service and food on Etihad, BA, Qatar Airways, Ethiopian and others.

And no matter which airline, wherever I'm flying to, or in which cabin, I look forward to the next flight...


















DID YOU KNOW...?
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Putin works out in his, President Jiang Zemin found bed bugs in his, while Kim Jong-un is scared to use his. A look at the VVIP jets used by heads of state...
posted by Richard Green on 03/08/2018
 

An artist's impression of Trump's newly ordered Boeing 747-8

In February 2018 the USA's President Trump placed an order for two new Air Force One's at a cost of $3.9 billion - to replace the current couple of 31 year-old presidential jumbos. For that cash he'll get oversized armchairs, dining on demand and a proper bed - oh and in-flight refuelling, guided missile deflection, and a command centre speccy enough to start and direct a war from.

VVIP aircraft for heads of state fly the flag on official visits, and peacock a country's wealth and power. The Shah of Iran and Prince Charles flew their own, President Putin's has a on board gym, the Pope's is dubbed Shepherd One, and George Bush Snr liked his so much he sometimes slept on it the night before an official flight.

Here's the why, when, how and what of government and royal flights...

Why? It's not just self-aggradisement - for rich and powerful countries there is surely a case for specifically designed, maintained and operated aircraft to transport their heads of state. Such a plane offers a secure communications platform, dependability and flexibility free from the vagueries of commercial airline timetables (and cancelations), and can become a command center in a crisis.

Lindon B. Johnson taking his midair oath of office after the assasignation of President Kennedy in 1963.

When? The very first head of state aircraft appeared in 1928, when two Westland Wapitis were stationed at the RAF's West London Northolt base, for use by the British Royal family. These single engined biplanes had a top speed of 207kph with a canvas covered rear section and two open cockpits in tandem.

A Westland Wapitis, as used in the rather rudamentary first Royal Flight.

The then Prince of Wales was a flying enthusiast and bought several aircraft before becaming King Edward VII in 1936. Actually, he was the first British royal to fly when he visited Villaverta on the Italian front on the 27th of September 1918. He got the bug, learnt to fly and bought a de Havilland Gypsy Moth in 1929.

Franklin D Roosevelt en route to the Casablanca Conference celebrating his 61st birthday

Franklin D Roosevelt was the first US president to fly in an aircraft when he used a Pan Am crewed Boeing 314 flying boat for the Casablanca Conference in 1943. The first presidential aircraft specifically bought for the purpose was a C-87A, which was followed by a Douglas C-54 Skymaster that was kitted out with an internal lift to carry the president in his wheelchair.

A pair of Air Force One's, which often fly together for backup and decoy purposes

Where? Private jets for head of state use are surprisingly widespread. Even smaller and poorer countries have them, like say Bosnia & Herzegovina, Malawi and Uruguay. And the richer nations use specially customised versions of the largest passengers planes around. And some like the Emir of Kuwait or Amir of Qatar, have many of them at their disposal. Both of these oil rich rulers have over a dozen jets, including a 747-8 Intercontinental each. This is the largest passenger plane Boeing has ever made, which Lufthansa operates with 509 seats.

This 37 year old Boeing 727 belongs to the Government of Burkina Faso. Photo Jerome/Flickr

Other heads of state with large passenger jet conversions include the King of Jordan, who runs an Airbus A340-600, Mexico's Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Morocco's 747, and Swaziland's King - who rules over a country of 1.3m people and the 164th largest GDP in the world - with an MD-87 and an Airbus A340-300.

Here are some other noteworthy VVIP flights by country...

Argentina, Bangladesh, China, India, Iran, Libya, Mexico, North Korea, Russia, UK, USA, & Vatican City.

Argentina: the Americans call thier presidential plane 'Air Force One', which is technically what any plane in which the US president is flying in on official business is called. It has spawned nick names for other countries. Lebanon's VIP aircraft is known as 'Cedar 1', Kenya's is 'Harambee One', Nigeria has 'Eagle One' (Nigeria), and Argentina's Agrupación Aérea Presidencial (Presidential Air Group) runs an ageing Boeing 757 called, wait for it, 'Tango 01'. The additional ruse there being that the letter 'T' is 'Tango' in the phonetic alphabet used in aviation.

'Tango 01', the Boeing 757 of the Argentine presidency

Bangladesh: following an engine shutdown and emergency landing at Ashgabat International Airport in Turkmenistan in 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was spooked enough to demand her ountry buy two new VVIP planes for government use. She was travelling to a conference in Budapest on board a Biman Bangladesh Airlines Boeing 777 and continued her journey on the same aircraft once it had been fixed.

Bangladesh Airlines Boeing 777-300ER. Photo Brngladesh Airlines

Sheikh Hasina is a controversial figure and her country is poor. Many lists of country VIP aircraft include her implicitly outrageous demand for a dedicated Boeing 777-300ER at a cost of $260 million. However the order never took place and the PM has reverted to using one of two Biman 777s as and when.

China: China's presidential fleet includes 10 737's and two Air China 747s. The latter are used by the national airline, and are pressed into use as the premier's plane when required. There are plans for a dedicated long haul presidential aircraft; perhaps a Boeing 747-8 currently flying with Air China will be given the improved security, inflight refuelling, and an airborne command centre makeover. 

Buying aircraft from the US for such a sensitive role has risks, as Jiang Zemin found out when he ordered a Boeing 767-300ER in 2001. It came with top of the range extras - like a bath tub and a 48' TV in the president's suite - plus 27 unwanted listening devices in the seats, panelling, and toilets. And there were bed bugs too, as at least one device was found hidden in the headboard of the presidential bed.

It was alledged that the CIA jimmied the plane while it was be converted from a regular Delta Air Lines plane in San Antoniio, Texas. Perhaps unsurprisingly the plane was never used for government officals, and was sold to a Kazakh airline in 2014. The fact that the new 747-8 was one of several already ordered and being used by Air China should ensure that it's not bristling with bugs.

India: the president's fleet of four Boeing 747-437Bs are equipped with jamming equipment, anti-missile systems and in-flight refueling. For short haul trips there are also three 737BBJs named Rajdoot, Rajhans and Rajkamal.

Boeing is delivering two new 777-300s later this month, which will have better range, lower fuel burn, and updates systems over the current 27-year-old jumbos.

Iran: Until the early 2010s, the president and other high-ranking government officials of Iran were still using the famous 'Shahin', a special VIP designed Boeing 707 that was purchased by the Shah of Iran in the 1970s. It was initially far more luxuriously outfitted than US Air Force One, but after the Iranian Revolution it was redesigned as a less regal VIP aircraft.

The venerable Boeing 707 'Sahin' as used by Iran till 2016.

An Airbus A321 was bought in the 1990s and is used on medium range trips of high government officials, plus the fleet includes a Dassault Falcon 20, three Dassault Falcon 50s and a Lockheed JetStar.

Forward cabin of the former Shah's Boeing 727. Photo Sam Chiu

The government of Iran also owned a Boeing 727, which is displayed at the Tehran Aerospace Exhibition Center near to Mehrabad Airport. The interior retains its VIP configuration as ordered by Henry Ford II in the 1960s. It was this aircraft that the Shah hiself piloted on January 16, 1979 on the first stage of his journey into excile to Aswan, Egypt.

Libya: Colonel Gadafi had a history of state visit eccentricities - once travelling overland from Tripoli to Cairo, and always taking a massive entourage and his trademark tent.

I was staying at the Sheraton in Addis Ababa when the Colonel stopped by. Large goons moved me away from the swimming pool in the early morning, where I later saw a white tent being erected. Later on the air inexplicably tensed and a motorcade sped down the driveway towards the portico and lobby.

The rebel-held Airbus A340 at Tripoli in 2011, after the fall of Gadaffi.

Gadaffi once flew to Zibmabwe for a onference with three airacfrat and 250 strong entourage, and on a trip to Belgrade in 1989 he arrived with two horses, six camels and a ton of Libyan sand. The authorities allowed him to graze the camels in the hotel grounds, but balked at him riding a horse to the opening of the conference as he had wanted. He departed without the camels, having gifted them to the city zoo.

Mexico: set against all this agrandisement, there is a long established (if niche) tradition of leaders promising to sell off expensive presidential planes. President Joyce Banda of Malawi sold her USD $22m Dassault Falcon 900EX jet and 60 matching Mercedes, and Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari sold off two jets in 2016 to 'cut down on waste'. 

As for Mexico's governmental Boeing 787 Dreamliner - President Felipe Calderon ordered it, President Enrique Peña Nieto flew in it, and now newly elected President López Obrador has said he'll sell it. The Boeing is one of 18 Mexican government aircraft, but is by far the most controversial and costly - having been leased for 15 years at an estimated USD $300m.

The left wing populist was elected on a pledge to tackle corruption, but other campaign pledges include turning the Presedential Palace into a public park and cutting his salary in half.

Fuerza Aérea Mexicana's Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. Photo Julio Cesar Hernandez Reyes

Incidentally, through the Army's Auxiliary Aerial Militia Squadron, founded during the Mexican Revolution in 1913, the Mexican Air Force is one of the world's oldest. 

North Korea: Kim Jong un's father and grandfather were terrified of flying - they witnessed their own executive jet explode at a display in 1982, which probably didn't help. On Kim Jong-il's two trips to China and one to Russia he took the train. For the Moscow sumit his 21-carriage armoured train took days to get there and was accompanied by hundreds of troops.

'Air Force Un', meeters and greeters, and a mammoth red carpet. Photo Korean Central News Agency

Current ruler Kim Jong-un appears to have escaped the worst of the family phobia though and uses an Illushyn IL-62 crewed by the infamous national carrier Air Koryo, dubbed 'Air Force Un'.

To ram the point home, he was filmed at the controls of a plane in 2015 - cue rousing orchestreal music and the patriotic tones of Ri Chun-hee, North Korea's newsreader of choice. How knowledgable about piloting an aircraft Un is remains in question.

Yet in May the so called Supreme Leader did risk a 360km flight from Pyongyang to Dalian when he met with China's Xi Jinping, and aboard his aged Il-62 too. This was his first known overseas trip by air. Enormous secrecy surrounded the visit, but a Cold War era Il-62 of Air Koryo was seen belching smoke on take off from Dalian airport after the meetings.  

It may look like an am-dram mock up, but this is the real Air Koryo deal. Photo Koryo Tours

Rumours abounded as to whether Un's plane, or indeed his nerves would stand up to a long flight to meet with President Trump back in June. So Singapore was chosen, in part to be in range of Un's old crate, and also so as not to have the machine overfly mile after mile of open sea, with all the fears of few diversion airports should something go wrong with the aircraft.

However rather than limping into Singapore in a plane thought to have been buit in xxxx, Kim Jong-un actually descended in one of his pal Xi's converted Air China Boeing 747-8s. This kept up appearances of North Korea's strong ties with China, and demonstrated privte plane parity, as it is the same aircraft type used by the US as Air Force One.     

Russia: for Putin's visit to the UK in 2003 he insisted that his 13-strong motorcade be shipped to London with him - including two armoured Russian-made Zil lomos. Russia presedential flight comprises 31 aircraft, including a couple of Airbusses, a couple of Antonovs, a couple of Tupolev 154s and Sukhois, eight Il-62s, eight Il-96s and 13 Tupolev 214s.

Putin's Russian-built presidential Il-96. Photo Dimitry Terekhov/Flickr

Russia operates two Ilyushin Il-96-300PU for the President's use, with all the trimmings, and there are even rumours of an escape capsule, similar to the one featured in the 1997 film 'Air Force One'.

Russian state Il-96 leaving Stansted in March 2018 with 23 'undeclared intelligence officers' on board

Head of state aircraft can be pressed into action for other duties too, as witnessed recently when Russia flew an government flight Il-96 to London's Stansted Airport in order to fly home their expelled embassy staff. British Prime Minister Teresa May had called the 23 'undeclared intelligence offices', and gave them a week to leave.

And so, with a photo of them and their famillies in the embassy being bid farewell by the Russian ambassador, an interview with the ambassador at the airport, and the large state jet, the Russian government capitalised on the PR opportunitites of the event rather effectively. 

United Kingdom: the UK government forked out £10 million to refit one of the Royal Air Force Airbus A330 Voyager fleet for use of the government and Royal family. It's a miitary version of the standard passenger-carrying A330 that operates for the RAF as a fuel tanker, now fitted with 58 business classs style seats, missile defence systems and enhanced comms.

Am RAF A330 Voyager atRAF Brize Norton. Photo Sam Wise/Flickr

The UK's Royal family has form when it comes to actually flying planes too. Prince Philip earnt his wings (a term to mean that a person has completed their RAF flight training) in 1953, and at the time of him hanging up his goggles for good had accrued 5,986 hours at the controls. The Duke of York, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry are also qualified helictopter pilots.

RAF BAE-146 of the UK's Royal Flight in Sumburg. Photo Ronnie Robertson/Flickr

Prince Charles was a keen flyer too. He started his career with the RAF in 1968. An incident on the Isle of Islay in June 1994 led to the Prince stepping down from active flying. He was at the controls during the landing and approached yhe runway some 32knots too fast and in high winds. This caused tyres to burst and the plane to slew off the runway and halt with the nose gear in mud. 

USA: The so called 'Flying Whitehouse' was begun under JFK. It's said that George Bush Snr liked it so much that he'd get to the airport the night before and sleep on the plane before its early morning departure. And Jimmy Carter remembered his first trip - President Ford lent him the plane to carry his family to the inauguration. Carter said, "I was so excited, when we drove from Plains down to Albany, we forgot my mother," he said. "We had to stop and turn around."

Air Force One departing LAX

No surprise there - he was never going to buy an Airbus (the other airframer that makes an equivilent sized plane to the Jumbo Jet) - though he likes private jets and has a Boeing 757 of his own. He said the replacement of the current and aging Presidential Flight was a complete waste of money while on the campaign trail, but that was then.

Here's what you could have won. A fantasy Air Force One A380

The Reagan era Air Force One, a Boeing 707 that the President visited 26 countries and 46 states in, is on display at the Ronald Reagan Foundation in Simi Valley. The aircraft served seven US presidents from 1973 to 2001, and was where Reagan wroite many of his speeches and signed legislation. Among the other displays is a presidential limo, and a transplanted Irish pub from Ballyporeen, Ireland, which Reagan visited on a diplomatic trip in 1984 - it's now the Library’s snack shop.

Reagan's Air Force One displayed at his museum. Photo Jim Maurer/Flickr

The National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio has an entire gallery devoted to previous presidential aircraft.

Vatican City: Pope Paul VI was the first pontiff to fly - when he made the first papal pilgrimage to Jordan and Israel in 1964.The Pope doesn't have his own aircraft, but instead tends to charter an Alitalia plane for his outward journeys, and then an aircraft from the national carrier of the country he is returning to Rome from.

Pope Benedict arriving in the USA in 2008. Photo Andrews Air Force Base

The media has dubbed his plane as 'Shepherd One', to echoe Air Force One, but it's invariably a chartered passenger jet.

These days the pope is lucky to get a couple of seats in Business Class, but a bed on display at a modest Kansas City Museum shows it wasn't always this way. In the unlikely setting of the Strawberry Hill Museum, in the days before flatbed seating in First and Business Classes, is the full sized bed that the pontiff used on an early trip to the US.

TWA's 'Shepherd 1', used for Pope John Paul's 1995 visit to the US

One More Thing...the most powerful man in the world aboard its most speccy plane, yet on September the 11th 2001, the armour plating, in flight refuelling and swarms of secret service simply wasn't enough.

After the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on the 11th of September 2001, the then US President, George W. Bush was rushed to a safe room. Not to some super secret bunker deep under the Lincoln Memorial or in a disused Appalacian mine, but instead to the armoured cabin of Air Force One, which was hastilly scrambled from Sarasota, Florida, where the president was visiting a primary school.

At this time US air space had been closed, so pretty much the only plane above America's skies - aside from its escort of F-16 fighters -  was just a pale blue and white Boeing 747, with around 60 people on board, and their Commander in Chief.

George Bush on board Air Force One on 9/11

The 747 lifted off and began heading to Washington D.C, but changed course owing to reports of six or more aircraft still not responding to ATC calls (and therefore possible hijacked targets too).

Following a call from Dick Cheny on the ground in Washington, the President gave the go ahead to shoot down any hijacked aircraft from his in-flight oval office at the front of the main deck.

Communications with the ground and ATC melted down somewhat due to the chaotic circumstances and spike in demand. Bush was minded to return to Washington D.C., but the on-baord secret service team told the president they didn't feel that was safe.

Then a highjacked plane hit the Pentagon and Tillman is reported as saying 'Let's go and cruise around the Gulf (of Mexico) for a little bit".

In the post 9/11 chaos, AF1 only picked up TV feed when flying over big cities

Comms that day on board AF1 were surprisibgly poor, with no email, just two phone lines operational, and intermittant TV reception - only really watchable when flying over large cities.

They flew to the nearby Barksdale Air Force Base, near Shreveport, Louisiana, and were caught by local news reporters, who were nevertheless unaware if Bush was on board. He left the plane via the lower stairs in case of snipers. After refulling, resupplying, and a hasty recorded press conferemce, an hour and 53 minutes after Air Force One had landed, it took off again.

President Bush using the lower steps at Barksdale Air Force Base, in case of snipers

With fuel topped up further with in flight refulling, the aircraft was good for a non stop flight of about 14 hours. But AF1 actually proceeded northwest to Offut Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska - a good thousand miles west of the US capital.

From here, the aircraft continued on its unlikely odyssey, heading for Andrews Air Force Base 20 kilometres outside of Washington D.C. The president and all on AF1 got a chilling view of the Pentagon building disfigured by the crash of Maerican airlines flight 77 and in flames.

On landing Bush was swiftly transfered to Marine One, the presidential helicopter. He finally arrived at the White House some nine hours after hijacked American Airlines flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York.


 
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