In yesterday’s news, the media was all aflutter about Mr. Trump’s tweet calling for the cancellation of a new Air Force One, (actually a small fleet of Boeing 747-8) one of which will have the call sign Air Force One when the President is on board. The cost estimate he used was, I think, $4 billion dollars for the project. Of course, Boeing shot back and said THEY were only on contract for $170 million, the implication being Mr. Trump was full of stuffing.
I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life dealing with the problems of translating operational requirements into capability, and I can assure you Mr. Trump is far closer to the actual cost than Boeing, and if I had to guess the $4 billion estimate is at least $1 billion too low when all the acquisition professionals get done with the project.
Let’s start with some historical context. The current fleet of two VC-25 Boeing 747s were ordered during the Reagan era, and the first one flew as Air Force One in 1990.[i] Interestingly, the fact sheet doesn’t give a cost for the aircraft as do most of the other fact sheets, but the E-4B lists the cost of a similar command and control (less plush, less VIPish) aircraft at $223 million in FY98 dollars (about $331 million today).
But what about Boeing’s claim they are only on contract for $170 million dollars? I can’t imagine they are correct or even truthful. A run of the mill C-130 Hercules costs about $100 million when you factor in things like spare parts, support equipment and training. The Boeing price sheet[ii] shows the list price of a stripped down 747-8 is $378.5 million, so either the US is getting one heck of a deal on this aircraft or the real costs are buried somewhere else. Also, this is just the base cost – it does not include all the cool modifications a President, his staff, and the press people who fly along with him (or her) would need or want.
I can only imagine the field day the White House staff of the current administration had defining the best possible aircraft for the successor of President Obama. I’m just guessing here, but I bet they thought it would be Ms. Clinton, so in their eyes, nothing was too good for the Commander in Chief, and cost was only a cursory concern. You want rich leather unmarred by barb wire scars? Absolutely, let me add that to the tab. How about a Spa for those long flights home after a weekend in Europe? No problem.
Now I am not saying there will be a gyro stabilized dance floor like I saw being put in a Boeing 777 for some middle eastern customer, but there will certainly be sound deadening additions, communication additions, a medical suite, rich carpeting with fiber optic egress lighting, maybe an escape capsule like in the movie, and a hundred things I can’t even think of.
Then you add in the cost for all the new engineering data our government engineers will want, and Boeing's position that all that data is proprietary so we will have to pay them for the studies, the analysis, and the drawings so that Boeing contractors can maintain the aircraft with the assistance of Air Force personnel.
Next, there will be the cost for flight testing this new aircraft to make absolutely, positively sure it flies just like a commercial Boeing 747 and water doesn’t splash out of the spa. I’m guessing here, but that would be at least a couple of hundred million dollars to upgrade the test facilities and complete the flight testing at Edwards AFB.
Finally, we have the upgrades to the maintenance complex at Andrews. These are brand new aircraft; they deserve and demand the finest of maintenance facilities, so the hangers and offices of the current Air Force One fleet will need pretty extensive overhaul.
As I believe Everett Dirksen once said, “A billion here and a billion there, pretty soon you are talking about some real money.”