How Was Air Force One Built?

Hand-picking the exposed aluminum is not really a big deal.

How was Air Force One built? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

While the airframe of the aircraft that are intended to be the primary Air Force One aircraft are built on the same Boeing assembly line as all others, there are differences.


In the case of 28000 and 29000 the differences began with Air Force personnel hand-picking the sheets of aluminum that would be used on the polished, unpainted areas of the finished airframe.

NOTE: My understanding is that the next two will be built from 747–8s that were built for someone else and have been stored because that customer didn’t take them—which gave the Air Force a good deal on them. So, unless that changes, they’ll get whatever aluminum has already been used.

But hand-picking the exposed aluminum is not really a big deal. I had a friend who became a test pilot and delivery pilot for American Airlines. Their livery is nearly all exposed aluminum. My friend would pick out the skin fuselage for the American jets that he would eventually end up signing off on at delivery time. So, it’s no surprise that the Air Force was allowed that courtesy.


The in-flight refueling receptacle was built by Boeing because they had developed that for the Boeing E-4 series. And there was some internal differences in the fuel tanks compared to a normal 747.

The E-4s were based at Andrews when I was based there and remained on standby there from 1975 until President Clinton moved them to Offutt AFB in Omaha. While at stationed Andrews, the E-4s were used as an emergency backup plan. In case of war, the President would leave Washington in an E-4 instead of the designated Air Force One aircraft.

So, the two designated Air Force One airframes got some of the E-4 mods.


After Boeing finished 28000 and 29000, they rolled off the assembly line in lovely factory green, zinc chromate or zinc phosphate primer, which is a preservative to protect that perfect, hand-picked aluminum.

They were flown green to Nordam’s hangar in Wichita, Kansas. Nordam built the interior, all of the safety and defensive additions, and painted their exteriors. Much of the work they performed is secret.


In a weird coincidence, I was a pilot in the Presidential Wing at Andrews and the president of Nordam was Charlie Ryan, with whom I went to junior high and high school in Tulsa. Nordam’s HQ was in Tulsa. I talked to Charlie at our 20-year high school reunion while 28000 and 29000 were under construction by his company. It was hard to believe that the world can be that small.

(A SAD NOTE: Charlie died a few years later when he was a passenger in an Alaska bush plane on floats that had a very hard landing. The landing broke off one float pod and the plane turned turtle almost instantly. Charlie was sitting in the back row of seats and was the only one who didn’t get out.)

This question originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora:

* Air Force One: What are some mind-blowing facts about Air Force One?

* Airplanes: Why do people get sentimental on airplanes?

* Pilots: What does getting a private pilots license entail?

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