VIP aircraft: how do presidents, prime ministers and heads of state travel?

Planes of heads of states
Björn Strey / Wikimedia Commons

The ability to travel at short notice is an important part of a presidential or governmental work schedule.

While some leaders and heads of state arrive at regional and international meetings on massive four-engined planes, others travel on smaller jets.

Let‘s take a look at various fleets.

The United States and its giants of the sky

The US presidential aircraft fleet currently consists of two Boeing VC-25 wide-body planes, which are configured as military versions of Boeing 747-200B airliners.

Both planes are giants of the sky, marked with tail numbers 28000 and 29000 respectively. They are commonly operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) and use the radio call sign ‘Air Force One’.

US Air Force One
1000 Words / Shutterstock

This call sign was first used in the early 1950s after Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected as the 34th President of the US. At the time, the standard US Air Force procedure was to designate a flight by its tail number.

However, in 1953 this procedure led to a case of mistaken identity during radio communication between the Washington air traffic control in Richmond, the presidential plane, and an Eastern Airlines flight, which had been given the same designated flight/tail number.

After the confusion, US officials realized that the method of giving a presidential plane a call signal name by using its tail number could lead to accidents. Thus, a new procedure of giving any plane flying the president the radio sign ‘Air Force One’ was implemented. Meanwhile, when the plane is carrying the Vice President of the United States, the radio call sign is changed to ‘Air Force Two’.

Capable of flying roughly one-third of the way around the world without refueling (up to 7,800 miles – about 12,600 kilometers), the presidential Boeing 747-200B features two main decks and a cargo area. The presidential version features 4,000 square feet (370 square meters) of floor space used for presidential duties.

US Air Force One
Liner / Shutterstock

The plane has a seating capacity for 70 passengers on the second floor, which is considered the main deck. The aircraft also features three entrances, two of which are located on the main deck and one on the lower deck.

The president’s executive suite, which is located on the front side of the plane, is equipped with sleeping quarters, which includes two couches, a lavatory and a shower as well as a vanity unit, double sink, a private office, and a conference room. The aircraft is packed with telecommunication systems including 87 telephones and 19 televisions.

Replica of the Oval Office in the presidential airplane, Air Force One at National Harbor.
Replica of the Oval Office in the presidential airplane. Pamela Au / Shutterstock

Meanwhile, aircraft facilities for the Secret Service, security personnel and other staff, including doctors, are located in the rear area of the main deck. At first sight, this is configured in a similar way to an ordinary airline‘s first-class cabin. However, the medical area features a fold-out operating table, emergency medical supplies, and well-stocked pharmacy storage.

Fun fact: the plane’s two food preparation galleys can feed 100 people at a time.

As for the technical side, the presidential plane features onboard electronics which are hardened to protect against an electromagnetic pulse. Air Force One is also able to withstand radiation from a nuclear blast and carries flare and chaff dispensers to counter incoming missiles.

How does the British Royal Family travel?

While most of the United Kingdom’s government departments use scheduled commercial flights when they travel for official duties, members of the Royal Family travel on dedicated VIP transport aircraft.

The VIP RAF Voyager, which is also recognized as the Vespina, is a version of the Airbus A330 MRTT [Multi Role Tanker Transport] aerial refueling and military transport aircraft, modified to operate Royal Air Force (RAF) flights.

In 2015, the UK government announced a $12 million (around £9.7 million) aircraft refurbishment project under which the Vespina was fitted with VIP seating.

The plane now is capable of flying 58 passengers in business class as well as 100 in economy class. Under the refit project, the aircraft was also equipped with secure satellite communications and missile detection systems as well as conference facilities and a dressing room.

Royal Air Force Voyager
Defence Imagery / Flickr

Despite being fitted as a VIP plane, and featuring the custom UK livery since 2020, the RAF Voyager continues to serve its military purpose of mid-air refueling and personnel transport.

In addition to the VIP airliner, the Royal Family also uses the private charter services of Luxaviation UK, mainly for their non-scheduled travel.

The UK’s government bodies mainly use scheduled commercial flights or 32 Squadron aircraft when they need air transport.

Royal Canadian Air Force VIP aircraft

Members of Canada’s monarchy as well as the governor-general, prime minister and other senior members of the Canadian Government use dedicated VIP transport aircraft operated by two squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

The RCAF is divided into the 437 Transport Squadron and the 412 Transport Squadron. The 437 Transport Squadron, based at CFB Trenton, currently has five Airbus A310-300s on its fleet, all of which are designated as CC-150 Polaris. Four out of five planes are configured as regular jetliners, while a single A310 is modified in the VIP configuration and is officially recognized as Can Force One.

Airbus CC-150 Polaris
CambridgeBayWeather / Wikimedia Commons

The executive suite on board Can Force One includes an office space, a bedroom, a galley, a sitting room, and a shower and is equipped with a satellite telephone as well as two computer workstations and a small refrigerator, all of which are located in the front side of the plane.

Royal Canadian Air Force VIP aircraft
Alex JW Robinson / Shutterstock

Meanwhile, the rear side of the jet features a standard passenger cabin, which is mostly used to fly military passengers, press, or other guests.

In comparison to the 437 Transport Squadron fleet, the 412 Transport Squadron has more dedicated executive planes. It currently operates four CC-144-designated Bombardier Challenger 604 and Bombardier Challenger 650 business jets in a VIP configuration.

Germany’s Konrad Adenauer

The specially dedicated plane that flies members of Germany‘s government is the modified Airbus A340-300 wide-body plane, operated by the First Division of the German Air Force Luftwaffe. The aircraft is named ‘Konrad Adenauer‘ after German statesman Konrad Adenauer.

The 23-year-old plane, registered 16+01, is used for official travel and diplomatic business. Similar to other governmental planes, the A340 features sleeping rooms and a wide variety of safety technology. The Konrad Adenauer is able to operate up to 8,400 miles (around 13,500 kilometers) without refueling stops and has a capacity for up to 143 passengers on board.

In November 2022, the German Government announced it had taken delivery of a successor to the aging Konrad Adenauer. The new Airbus A350-900 jet, registered 10+01, was the second of three planes delivered under the government‘s $1.3 billion deal with Airbus.

France’s equivalent of Air Force One

France’s equivalent of Air Force One is an Airbus A330 aircraft, operated by the country‘s Military Air Transport Command (COTAM).

The 24-year-old Airbus A330-200 jet, registered F-RARF, has been operating presidential and governmental flights since the early 2010s when it first was used for official trips by the former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Airbus A330 of government of France
Björn Strey / Wikimedia Commons

Before joining the COTAM fleet, the plane used to hold registration HB-IQB and had been serving commercial passenger flights for Switzerland‘s flag carrier, Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS).

Refurbished in 2010 by the France-based MRO services provider Sabena technics, the A330 is equipped with an executive suite with an office, a medical area, a small operating room, a conference room, and a bathroom.

The current French President, Emmanuel Macron, also travels in another VIP-configured aircraft, the Dassault Falcon 7X large-cabin business jet, registered F-RAFA. The three-engined cantilever monoplane is mainly used for short trips.

Dassault Falcon 7X large-cabin business jet
John Taggart / Shutterstock
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