Stakes were high as Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin met in Geneva. The meeting may have not resolved international tensions, but – at the very least – it provided a chance for both the United States and Russia to affirm their positions and convince their allies of their firm intentions.
Showing off is an important part of such meetings, and both countries certainly have a knack for demonstrating their perceived might through whatever means possible. The airplanes with which presidents arrived are among such means. Massive four-engined beasts of both presidents are some of the largest passenger aircraft in the world, and are a demonstration of the very best both countries’ aviation industry can offer.
Of course, it is impossible to say which aircraft is more impressive. The impression is a subjective thing. But it is possible to compare them: lay out the facts and allow everybody to formulate an opinion of their own. So, what are those facts?
The first impression
Arguably, the Air Force One is the best-known aircraft ever. And while technically any US Air Force aircraft carrying the country’s president gets assigned the Air Force One callsign, everybody knows THE Air Force One – the iconic Boeing VC-25, a deeply modified 747-200 which flies American presidents since the early 90s.
With the livery created by a famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy and an interior by Nancy Reagan, the aircraft became an icon through scores of presidential visits all over the world, as well as its depictions in Hollywood films. Donald Trump’s attempts to change the livery were met with harsh criticism, and it appears that American presidents are destined to travel with this iconic look for decades to come.
There are two VC-25s in existence and they always travel in pairs just in case there is a problem with one of them. The presidential seal on its door is a prominent part of every picture of the American head of state arriving in any country, as is the sight of the monstrous airplane landing.
The Russian counterpart is much less known, yet quite often gathers attention from aviation enthusiasts nonetheless. Following the American fashion, any aircraft carrying the Russian president is assigned a callsign “Plane No. 1”. Normally that aircraft belongs to the Special Flight Detachment “Rossiya”, which is subservient to the Directorate of the President of the Russian Federation.
The detachment has over 65 aircraft – from helicopters to business jets to long-range airliners – and is tasked with transporting Russian governmental officials. The crown jewels of its fleet are, of course, the five Ilyushin Il-96-300PU wide-body aircraft. The newest of them was introduced in April 2021, while the oldest one dates to the 90s.
According to some sources, all five aircraft are being readied every time Putin prepares to travel somewhere and the president chooses the plane he intends to fly on at random. This story may not be correct, but – just as with VC-25s – Il-94-300PUs also travel in pairs to avoid stranding Putin in case of an emergency. This did not always work though: the plane became notorious due to its mechanical failures and broke down on numerous occasions. In 2005, as Putin was visiting Finland, the braking system malfunctioned during the take-off. The president had to continue the journey home on a backup Il-62.
The livery of the Russian presidential aircraft, while not as iconic, is a piece of history too. In the past, the Special Flight Detachment “Rossiya” was a part of the airline Rossiya and bore its livery – all-white with a strip of the Russian flag. In 2009, the detachment was transferred to the presidential directorate and became independent from the airline. In 2018, the airline updated its livery while the detachment’s aircraft remained the same.
By modern standards, both presidential aircraft are dinosaurs. The Boeing 747 dates back to the 60s, while the 747-200B, on which the VC-25 is based, was introduced in 1971. It has many features of newer aircraft – including the CF6-80C2 engine (also used in the 747-400) and a glass cockpit and has been constantly upgraded through its three-decades-long career.
The Ilyushin Il-96-300PU is, in many aspects, a relic of the Soviet Union. It is based on the Il-96 airliner, itself an upgrade of the Il-86 – the first soviet wide-body developed in the early 70s. The Il-96 was introduced in the late 80s, and featured many improvements; nevertheless, its life was short: manufactured in small quantities and plagued by technical problems, the aircraft was unwanted by Russian airlines. The Russian government and military remain the most avid operators of this model and are the only ones who will fly the Il-96-400M: the much-advertised but ultimately unsuccessful next iteration of the aircraft.
The most striking feature of both aircraft is, of course, their size. Both are four-engine wide-body planes that would often find themselves as the largest in almost any airport. The Russian one has a slightly larger wingspan (60.11 m / 197 ft 3 in vs VC-25’s 59.9 m / 196 ft 8 in), but the American one is significantly longer (70.66 m / 231 ft 10 in vs Il-96’s 55.3 m / 181 ft 7 in).
The 747 is heavier as well, its maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) being greater by almost 60 tons; its engines also produce almost 60% more thrust. All of this results in the VC-25 being much roomier than the Russian counterpart and being able to carry much more equipment, amenities, and personnel.
Other specifications of both aircraft can’t be confirmed and are mostly a subject of speculation. They most likely have fairly similar cruise speed and service ceiling; the rumored range of the Russian aircraft – 14,800 kilometers (9,196 miles) is larger than that of the VC-25 (12,600 kilometers / 7,800 miles), but the VC-25 has a provision for aerial refueling, which can extend its range many times over, as long as an aerial tanker is nearby.
While outwardly both airplanes resemble the models they are based on, the insides are very far from their commercial counterparts.
The most peculiar feature, of course, is the defensive equipment both aircraft carry. For obvious reasons, nothing specific is known about it, but – as per available information – both aircraft have heavy shielding and can withstand radiation from a nuclear blast; they are also equipped with electronic warfare suites that can jam communications and confuse anti-aircraft weaponry, and carry flare and chaff dispensers to lure away incoming missiles.
Another noteworthy feature is the communications equipment. Both the VC-25 and the Il-94-300PU are designed to serve as mobile command posts, allowing their respective presidents to keep in touch with the governments and, if need be, wage nuclear war while in flight. Famously, there is twice more wiring on the VC-25 than on a regular 747-200; while the length of the Il-96-300PU’s wires is not known, the “PU” in its name stands for “punkt upravleniya” – “command post”.
One can only hope that the military capability of both planes is never going to be employed. Meanwhile, the routine operation of presidential aircraft rests on their other capabilities.
According to available information, Putin’s plane contains a gym, a bedroom with a king-sized bed, a 10-square-meters (108 sq. ft) office, and a conference room with 9 seats. The VC-25 has a gym as well, but its office space is considerably bigger: the whole front of the aircraft is dubbed “the White House” and contains a meeting room, a dining room, and a communications room, each of them – judging from photos – larger than Putin’s conference room. The rest of the American aircraft is dedicated to staff quarters and offices.
It appears that a much bigger part of the Il-96-300PU is dedicated to personal and living space. The Russian aircraft is also much more luxurious: its gold-and-gems-adorned interior, designed by Russian artist Ivan Glazunov, is nothing but lavish in comparison with Nancy Reagan’s strict, 80s-office-like look of the VC-25.
There is one aspect of luxury in which the Russian aircraft sorely lacks though: the VC-25 famously carries a provision for 3000 meals and a full-fledged kitchen. The Il-96-300PU has a kitchen as well, but it packs only pre-made meals to be reheated by flight attendants. Reportedly, on more occasions than one Putin was dissatisfied with the quality and variety of meals served on his airplane, saying that he is being forced to eat “the same food again”.
The one aspect in which the presidential planes of the US and Russia differ the most is their cost. American taxpayers paid $325 million for each VC-25 in the early 80s – over $1 billion in today’s money. It also costs $210,877 per hour to operate (like a half-a-squadron of F-35s), not including costly upgrades and refurbishments that it undergoes constantly.
The price estimates of Putin’s plane vary wildly. According to some reports, the cost of the new Il-96-300PU introduced in 2021 was $70 million; others put it as high as $550 million. The higher estimate may be more likely to be closer to the truth, but there is no way to know the real price of the jet. Also, quite surely, a large part of the money was dedicated to the luxurious interior of the plane, its equipment and systems being significantly cheaper than those on the VC-25.
There is also the controversy with the VC-25B – the new American presidential plane based on the Boeing 747-8i, which is supposed to replace the current one by 2024. Boeing faced delays and cost overruns, bloating the initial contract price of almost $2 billion-per-plane to yet unknown size. It is quite clear that the cost of the new VC-25 will put Putin’s Il-96 to shame, and it won’t even feature golden decorations and antique tapestries in its interior.
This article was first published on June 17, 2021.