Podcast: Air Force One: Flying Fortress
The special episode of the podcast offers the full recording of an interview with Scott Bateman, the executive producer of a new documentary about the U.S. President's long-range transport fleet.
Steve Trimble: Welcome to the Check Six Podcast. My name is Steve Trimble, and I am the defense editor for Aviation Week.
We'd like to bring you something a little different this week. Normally we set up to record a podcast about a specific topic or event, but that's not quite how it happened this time. This is simply a recording of what was supposed to be a brief one-on-one interview with the executive producer of a new documentary about Air Force One. After that interview concluded, we decided that the full recording was so interesting we really should release it in full as its own podcast. Our producers tried to clean up the sound quality as best they could, so please forgive this slightly subpar audio that remains particularly on my end of the conversation.
With that said, this is an interview with Scott Bateman, the Executive Producer for the documentary called The New Air Force One: Flying Fortress. It airs on February 15th for the first time in the US on the Nat Geo channel. Now if you have any interest in the president's fleet of 747s, I think you should watch this.
Having received the personal blessing of former President Donald Trump, US Air Force gave Bateman's team almost carte blanche with some conditions as we discussed, to document not only the operations of the current aircraft, but also the highly secretive modifications now underway for the Boeing VC25B, which replaces the 30 year old 747-200s now doing the job in just a few years.
Scott Bateman was very kind to answer all of my questions about how he secured access to the VC25B modification facility, some of the unique tooling required to transform a commercial 747-8 into a VVIP style military command post, and also some important changes coming for the VC25B's flight crew as they make their transition from the 747-200 to the new derivative of a 747-8.
So without further ado, please enjoy this special episode of the Check Six Podcast. Don't forget to download and review this podcast in all of your favorite places. Thanks.
Steve Trimble: I really enjoyed the documentary. I got the screener yesterday and watched it right away, just right up my alley too. It reminded me of like Bob Dorr’s, Air Force One coverage and books. I don't know if you've ever seen what he's done in the past.
Scott Bateman: I did. I've actually got his book just here, in fact.
Steve Trimble: Very well. He was a good guy.
Scott Bateman: I mean, I'm glad you enjoyed that. It was tough to get the access that We did. And particularly in the time that We did and We got unfettered access. Although We only had 46 minutes, some of the stuff that we showed has never been shown before.
Steve Trimble: So the presidential airlift group, you can't get access to that. I've seen that happen. It's very difficult, but to actually get access to the hangar where they're modifying to VC-25B, I've been in that San Antonio facility with VC-25A in the next hanger, and they wouldn't even acknowledge that it was there. So as I'm very impressed and it's just part of the story is how you got that access. And I don't know if there's much you can say about that, but I'm very curious.
Scott Bateman: I'd love to say that it was all me , but it wasn't. It was the majority of it was me. I will just pay fortunate, Steve. I mean, I've got a fantastic network anyway, having been in the military and We went through the military initially and then through some diplomatic channels, which put us in contact with some people at The White House. And then we've met with a couple of friends of President Trump's who work at The White House. And I met with them in Washington, actually. And then it was put to President Trump that would he be willing to allow us access to that? And with The White House Military office and the administration, We managed to get access to both, which was amazing. They use off and the DOD couldn't and whereas military office couldn't have been more accommodating if I'm being honest, we're very tolerant with us.
And We did spend, one of the things that We did was We spent our entire time as a Miner, and We didn't mind that. And so as We were sitting there was somebody there and We will see some of the stills photographs. There was a security guy with everyone watching the footage and We handed over all of our footage to the DOD and The White House. And all of the footage was screened before we got it back. So if there's anything that was sensitive or security related, they took it out. And that was part of the deal for getting access.
Steve Trimble: There would have been no access without that kind
of deal for those kinds of.
Scott Bateman: It was tough, it took two years to get the access. And that's why this project down, I knew you follow me on Twitter. I've been teasing this project for some time. That's why it's taken so long to come to fruition is really the access. And obviously trying to, I did an interview with the president on board, that's tough and a lot tougher than you would imagine. He travels a lot with the plane, but actually to get a period on the plane where you can actually have some time with them is really challenging. It's really challenging because he does a lot work close these flying and We managed to get, in fact it was 40 minutes with them and. He is as I'm sure [inaudible 00:04:15], he really is. And it was a great interview. We didn't talk politics at all. We talk airplanes, and he has had a 727 or 757. Now he's got, He has some 47 for four years. He is really, He loves airplanes.
Steve Trimble: There was also the access in Victorville into the modification hanger where they put on the new doors. Was that picture for San Antonio?
Scott Bateman: No. So the planes, as I'm sure were stalled in Victorville and the filming that you see in Victorville is actually the USAF handover of the airplane. Stalled from Boeing, that's the day that Boeing effectively [inaudible 00:05:04] that the Air Force signed on the dotted line and the airplane became the VC-25B at that point. It was quite amazing to see that done. That was quite simple thing, but that was the official acceptance from Boeing to the USAF of the aircraft. The aircraft then was handed back to Boeing from the USAF and some Boeing pilots with some presidential airlift or pilots on board and flew the airplane across to San Antonio. As a USAF airplane though it was then by Boeing defense converted into the VC-25B that you'll see in about 18 months.
Steve Trimble: And so that's where it was loaded into that very high
tech high hydraulic cable?
Scott Bateman: It was, I think Texas.
Steve Trimble: I've never seen anything like that before. I guess that's, that's how they do all the VIP conversions of the 747-8 triple seven, VIP.
Scott Bateman: Actually not. So it's a one off, it was built specifically for less. So I've seen similar things before with other airplanes, but not to this complexity and the reason that it needs to be that complex as I'm sure, as explained in the film, is that the twisting moments, when you caught the calls, if it twists the chassis of the airplane effectively, the airplane is done. So they have to keep this airplane in sort of this zero gravity status. And because of that, they had to build this special thing. Now that didn't happen with the VC-25A become aircraft, because they were built from scratch. "So when" they were building them. They built the holes in the front the doors. So they didn't actually have to have that sort of complexity when they were building from scratch. However, weren't converting an airline up here, but it was built as an airline into this military aircraft. And that's where the complexity comes.
Steve Trimble: Right, and this was part of the cost savings of this was to buy the already built airliners. But then you have to put them in this very grandiose modification apparatus in order to put them into VC-25 shape.
Scott Bateman: So the cost is actually fixed as I'm sure served that there has been a significant for all about the costs, but I have sat in a meeting with The White House, the DOD and the presidential airlift group. So I can assure you, the cost is fixed for the airplane at $3.9 billion. So that won't change, Boeing at the moment is running at a loss as I'm sure you know, and they have talked about publicly. So that's not anything new because of COVID and the restrictions that have come in around that. They've had to put more people in there and a lot longer to get the airplane out on the timeline. So $3.9 billion will not change in the figure of 5.3 which we also mentioned that includes the manuals, the training, and the new hanger, that's something to be built out and various, which is currently being built as We speak.
Steve Trimble: That's in that full program element. I have seen those. It was funny because historically the VC-25A's also cost Boeing a fortune. I think they had like a $280 million contract and it cost them 700 or $800 million to deliver the two jets. When you start breaking apart airplanes, you've already made, I mean, the costs are astronomical.
Scott Bateman: Well you can look at the complexity click in the wording alone. So almost a million fruit of warring as the command for another million fruit of warring and to go back in of a different type. That alone, the manner involved in that is just unbelievable.
Steve Trimble: Yes. And you shot the new interiors or at least the interior concepts, which are so different from what we're used to seeing inside the videos when we do see inside the Air Force One. I mean, these are much more modern concepts, do you have any sense of whether or not those are close to what the final product will be, or are those just sort of who knows?
Scott Bateman: So I think this was saying why they had to change. So We have some insight in why this has to change. So you may not be aware, but part of the presidential airlift group in the hanger at the moment is they have a tailoring, which they keep the lever for the seats. So the lender for the seats currently is not commercially available. And if the seats are damaged, they have to take it from the room, tannery which they have a climate controlled tannery with all these pieces of leather. And it is absolutely stunning to see. So they have all, and that's to keep the color consistent throughout the airplane. So if you can imagine, if you're getting a slightly different color, one of the seats is damaged, it will look uneven. So you have to replace them all.
So to save money, what We did was they had it all dyed at the same time, and they've got the consistent color and I wouldn't like to guess how many, but they've got a lot in that tannery. So from a leather point of view for the seats, they wanted something that wasn't as difficult to replicate and would be easy to replicate in a modern aircraft. The second thing is the cabinetry on Air Force One is all wood and if you've ever been on the cabin of Air Force One it's stunning, and all the wood grains run. So there are in the conference room, I think there are nine panels on the back wall and the grain runs across all of those nine panels. So you can imagine if one of the panels is damaged. Yeah. I can see you holding your hands. If one of the panels is damaged, that means actually We can't replace the single panel because it means the grain wouldn't run across the entire airplane. Then it would look awful.
President sits in front of that. When he's doing this video conferencing, you can't have that. So what they've decided to do now, is to make those far more easier to maintain. So it'll have a modern feel to it. It will still be classic, but won't use real word in the same way that the [inaudible 00:11:43] paneling to give you some examples of this and having the full it is for them to change that. But if you go back to Bill Clinton, always use the carrier famously used the carrier and the attaché case with him with his papers in. And he used to come on the Air Force One and he used to drop the attaché case on the side, behind the desk. Now, every time you drop the attaché case on the sideboard behind the desk would Mark the depth of their sideboard.
So every time the airplane came back in, they either had to replace the sideboard or polish it out. And it got to the point where they got fed up doing that. So what they actually did was built a purpose belt thing for the President to put his attaché case on. So when he came on and they went, somebody put my attaché case to prevent it slipping up and down was the excuse. But actually that's not what it was for. It was actually to prevent them having to replace the cabinet every time he dropped his Attaché case. So that when he left actually it was given to him that that piece of the cabinetry was given to him as a President by the crew of Air Force One, because they helped never to have to use it again. That is the detail We go to. And some of the stuff, the little stories that they told us, which We didn't manage to get in, and I'll tell you what about the carpets, which is really funny.
So the carpets across the airplane, in the three zones on the airplane, so the presidential zone, the business zone, as We call it, and then the other half at the back where the visitors are three different carpets. So three different carpet cars, presidential zone is sort of a beige carpet with the bold stars on it for the presidential zone. And then beyond that is a darker carpet. Then darker even still towards the rear. Now the carpet part of the quality check go out. They are literally someone is on their hands and knees looking at pools in the carpet, and they will cut off the pools and the carpet with a, a razorblades type tool so that the carpet looks even. The Gentleman who did this, the original crew chief, who had this as his thing, that was his thing that actually, there will be no flaws on the carpet where it was called Tim and the flaws on the carpet.
And I called Timmy's. So if you have a Timmy on the carpet, you get a big trouble. If there's a Timmy on the carpet, when the president comes on-board, those little things that make the difference. It's the attention to detail of the crews who do this, put this in a plane, everything from the seat belts, all being the same and being polished to literally marks on the leather level, hide playing cards. So the crew chief will hide playing cards across the airplane, just to make sure that they get a full deck when they're doing their airplane checks. So there's a dedicated team of 40 that led by a crew chief, who in fact, you meet the crew chief in the documentary. The crew chief, well like the deck of playing cards and they got to get a full deck every time they do the checks on the airplane. It's really cool. The little things that it.
Steve Trimble: That is a VVIP treatment, but just one other question about it is a VVIP airplane, but it's also a nuclear command center. And what I understand with the current VC-25A is that they have the technology on board that if the nuclear war happens and it's flying, because it's the only safe place for the president to be, at that moment. They have to anticipate a world after a nuclear attack, where there is no FAA, ATC navigation aids whether in flight reports, all that kind of thing. And all that technology is built into the airplane with a separate station either. Did you get any insight into how that is being updated with the VC-25B, and how they configured this airplane with a modern equipment we have today for that kind of reality?
Scott Bateman: So the com the airplane has been upgraded. You've kind of intubated a little bit about yourself. So at the moment what they've done is they have it as a standalone station, which is behind the main pilot. And that's currently cooped by a navigator, six of us.
Steve Trimble: Or a Lieutenant Colonel sitting behind the pilot and your documentary. That's the station.
Scott Bateman: Yes. Just behind him actually. So where you see the other presidential pilot's setting, it's literally just find that jump sit. The navigator who sits there is actually running all those upgraded systems because they're standalone rather than integrated into the front of the airplane. What We do though about the new airplane is all those systems will be integrated rather than standalone. And the navigator on the flight engineer will no longer be needed on the aircraft.
Those stations that are being lost as part of this upgrade, because a lot of it's going internally, but what We will have is the piece that sits behind that. And I think for the first time we've shown video of the communications' area on Air Force One. And that's the first time I believe that life kind of footages ever be shot of that area.
Steve Trimble: I couldn't believe I've seen that.
Scott Bateman: So the three stations operates a lots of equipment, and they're going to be upgraded by having a full station, which will help cover the loss of some of the capability from the other stations of the losing them.
Steve Trimble: You also covered a bit of the defensive equipment that they're putting on the jet. And I was impressed to see that knowing how sensitive that part of the program is, of course we're all, that's our biggest interest is all this stuff I don't want to talk about. And probably I love the VIP interior stuff, but there's an amazing technology on that aircraft. Did you get any sense of anything they're doing differently in the defensive equipment with the VC-25A?
Scott Bateman: And as you probably know, we can't talk about that either, but what We can see, they said there is that the company Air Force One has had a significant number of operates, and some of those will be carried across to the new aircraft bogus, like 2 generations ahead from probably what was fitted to the current aircraft. So it will be very much the same stuff. The only thing that they won't have in terms of technology on the new aircraft, and this is not necessarily defensive, but it's capability led is it will not be able to be refueled. That's one of the compromises they've made on the modern aircraft is that they just see no need for that, which is a defensive capability of really, because it's not been able to refill them stay up in the air for much longer. But it has something like a 13 hour duration with the extra tanks that is going to have in the belly. So I don't think it's actually going to need to be refueled. I mean, We can go [inaudible 00:19:42] . What's that kind of capability.
Steve Trimble: Yeah. So I know the Air force has been pursuing hard kill defenses for large aircraft, potentially VVIP, but, I doubt they would be hinting at that kind of thing. And as far as I know, it's not even available yet.
Scott Bateman: To be fair, that they hinted on some of the capability, but again, it's not something that We can discuss. And actually, I think they covered it quite succinctly in the colors. It quite succinctly, The President will be protected on this airplane and will be even better protected on the new one.
Steve Trimble: Well that's all I need. Thank you very much for your time. And it's such a great show. I'm so excited that you guys put this out there. It's so hard to do this, to get that kind of access and I'm so glad you got it and did it that well the story is really well.
Scott Bateman: Thank you Steve. Really appreciate that.
Steve Trimble: Okay. That's a wrap for the Check 6 Podcast, which by the way is now available for download on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and Spotify. So, special thanks to Scott Bateman, the executive producer of the documentary that we just talked about, and especially this week, Amy Hardcastle, our hardworking producer. Join us again next week for more episodes of the Check 6 Podcast.