Photos: Air Force One at SEA

This blog post contains photos and video from U.S. President Joe Biden’s April 21-22, 2022, visit to Seattle, posted in the order in which they were taken. Interspersed within the imagery is the story of why this event was especially meaningful to me, both personally and professionally. -Annie

On the evening of Thursday, April 21, I got to experience something extra special… something I feel like I’ve been waiting for my entire life. On behalf of my blog, The Great Planes, I was granted White House press credentials to cover the arrival of President Joe Biden aboard VC-25A, better known as “Air Force One,” into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. I was among roughly a dozen other local journalists (mainly television news reporters and photographers) who were perched atop a platform roughly four feet high, situated on the airfield just next to where the big, beautiful presidential jet would soon park. This was my first time seeing Air Force One, so naturally it was a very special day for me as an aviation blogger and photographer. But as an aviation historian, this particular airplane and the legacy of presidential air transport has always been of interest to me, and in fact, played a large part in how I got to where I am today.

Next January will mark the 80th anniversary of U.S. presidents relying primarily on Boeing and heritage company airplanes. The first time a sitting president traveled by air was in January 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to Casablanca, Morocco, on a Boeing Model 314 Clipper flying boat operated by Pan American Airways. The Model 314 was the “jumbo” of her time and the original Queen of the Skies – the “Grandmother” of the Boeing 747, if you will. Over the next two decades, the presidential fleet was continually upgraded and included military versions of the Douglas DC-4 and DC-6, designated VC-54C and VC-118A, respectively. In these designations, the “V” stands for “VIP” and the “C” for “transport.” The VC-54C was the first airplane specifically built for use by the President of the United States, and was nicknamed the “Sacred Cow” by Roosevelt.

In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower broke the mold when he assumed office and brought with him a customized Lockheed Constellation, designated VC-121E. In fact, it was that airplane in that year that became the first to use the “Air Force One” callsign. In 1954, he upgraded to a Super Constellation. Toward the end of his second term, the administration acquired the first of three customized Boeing 707-120s, designated VC-137A, bringing the presidential fleet into the Jet Age. Although President Eisenhower often flew aboard the 707s – known as SAM (for Special Air Mission) 970, 971 and 972 – he still relied primarily on his Super Constellation. The U.S. Air Force “Special Air Mission” provides air transport for the sitting president and other high ranking officials. Whenever the president is on board one of the airplanes, that flight assumes the callsign “Air Force One.”

In 1962, John F. Kennedy became the first president to fly in a jet designed and built specifically for presidential use. The airplane – SAM 26000 – was the first of two highly modified Boeing 707-320Bs, designated VC-137Cs, to enter service. The second aircraft, SAM 27000, entered service in 1972. These two VC-137Cs were the first presidential planes to sport the iconic blue and white Raymond Loewy livery, still worn on today’s presidential 747s. SAM 26000 is perhaps best known for its role in one of the most tragic events in American history. On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy flew on SAM 26000 to Dallas, where he was assassinated. Lyndon B. Johnson was then sworn in as President on SAM 26000 before it departed for Washington, D.C., with Kennedy’s body on board.

The VC-137C served as the primary presidential airplane until 1990, when the VC-25A – a modified Boeing 747-200B – was introduced. The 747 first flew in 1969 and over the last 50-plus years has served in a multitude of roles, both civil and military. However, I think most aviation professionals would agree that the 747’s most famous role in history has been that of “Air Force One.”

I began my career with Boeing toward the end of 2017, and shortly thereafter I attended a presentation by our senior corporate historian, Mike Lombardi. I was fascinated with the stories he told and did whatever I could to stay in touch with him, thinking maybe, just maybe, one day I’d be fortunate to join his team. In the summer of 2018, I was reading about Boeing’s rich history of transporting U.S. presidents, and realized that the 747 was getting close to taking the reins from the 707 as the longest serving “Air Force One” airplane. I put pen to paper and did the math, down to the day. One could take a number of different approaches to these calculations, but I chose to base mine on delivery date.

The first VC-137C was delivered to the U.S. Air Force on Oct. 10, 1962, and the first VC-25A on Aug. 23, 1990, meaning nearly 28 years (or 10,179 days) separated the two dates. I calculated that July 7, 2018, marked 10,180 days since the first VC-25A was delivered. That was it. July 7, 2018, would be the day when the 747 would become the longest serving presidential aircraft. I excitedly shared my findings with Mike, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was fortunate to join Boeing’s Historical Services team the following year, and there’s been no looking back.

I’ve been running this blog and social media accounts by the same name for five years now, and never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take me this far. I found out that my application for press credentials was approved just hours before President Biden’s arrival into Sea-Tac. Upon my arrival at the press check-in location, I was instructed to empty my bags and lay everything out across the pavement so that the Secret Service could inspect it and the security dogs could sniff it. I was patted down from head to toe, then instructed to repack my bags, before being escorted onto the airfield. The anticipation was almost as exciting as the arrival itself. The weather wasn’t great – temperatures hovered around 50 degrees and rain clouds lingered for most of the afternoon. In fact, just moments after Air Force One’s 5:11 p.m. PT arrival, it began to drizzle, and it slowly grew into a steady shower. By the time the fanfare had come to an end, I was completely unphased by the fact that I was soaking wet and freezing cold. I was actually much more concerned about my camera equipment than I was about myself.

Friday was equally exciting. I was able to spend the morning airside at King County International Airport (Boeing Field) to watch a fleet of four MV-22 Ospreys and two VH-60N Whitehawks – part of HMX-1 (Marine Helicopter Squadron One or “Marine One”) – depart for Auburn, Washington, to pick up President Biden. I then zipped down to Sea-Tac to cover Biden’s arrival on Marine One, and subsequent departure on Air Force One. The afternoon ended up being quite eventful, as a suspicious vehicle at Sea-Tac caused the prompt relocation of the 747 to the middle of the airfield, where the fleet of helicopters met it. Biden was swiftly transferred to the airplane, before it and the support helicopters departed to the south. Air Force One was headed cross-country to Philadelphia, and the Marine One fleet was going back to Boeing Field where it would spend one more night. All support equipment had left the Seattle area by lunchtime Saturday.

Everything about the President’s visit was exhilarating and inspiring. Until Thursday, I had never in my life seen a sitting president in person, and had never seen so much security in one place. I am eternally grateful for this unique opportunity and I truly hope you get even half the satisfaction from seeing these photos as I did taking them. Cue “Hail to the Chief.”

WAI 2022: Enriching, encouraging and enlightening

A Lufthansa ERJ-190 pilot who previously flew the 737 and the legendary Queen of the Skies, the 747.

A former flight attendant who is now pursuing her pilot’s license and intends to fly helicopters with law enforcement.

An author who fought to ensure her grandmother — and other members of the WASP — received equal recognition at Arlington National Cemetery.

A U.S. Navy pilot who flies the SH-60 Seahawk — the naval version of the Army UH-60 Black Hawk.

A former U.S. Air Force Thunderbird pilot and the first woman to fly the T-7 Red Hawk.

Me and Caroline “Blaze” Jensen. She used to fly with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team, and last year became the first woman to fly the Boeing T-7 Red Hawk trainer. I attended a virtual session with her a few months back as part of a leadership program I’m in at Boeing, and jumped at the chance to meet her.

These are just a few of the incredibly smart, kind and inspiring women I met at this year’s International Women in Aviation Conference — and that doesn’t even touch on the dozens of industry colleagues I mixed and mingled with at the Exhibit Hall, which featured more than 100 exhibitors including airlines, manufacturers, military branches, schools and more.

Over the course of three days, I attended a number of leadership and educational seminars. All of them were so enlightening, but very different in terms of content and tone. One of them was on flight test, and another was on resiliency. One featured a former astronaut and two U.S. Space Force guardians, and another talked about the early (and I mean early!) history of women in aviation, including balloonists in the 1800s.

During the conference’s opening general session, there were some very, very powerful speakers, including Niloofar Rahmani, the first female fixed-wing pilot for the Afghan Air Force. With the support of her parents, Rahmani went against all odds to follow her dream of flying in war-torn Afghanistan. But after receiving death threats from the Taliban — not just against her, but against her family — Rahmani moved to the United States where she was granted political asylum. She has since learned to fly the C-130. Also during that session, we all stood for the Ukrainian National Anthem. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was misty-eyed.

I feel very fortunate to work in this industry. While it’s unthinkably large, it feels so very small. As a lifelong introvert, aviation has helped me to break out of my shell over the course of the last several years. It’s equally as comforting as it is exhilarating to be in a room full of people who you know share your passion. And it makes it that much easier to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, because you know within a few seconds they won’t feel so “strange.”

I’m grateful to have been able to attend this year’s conference in Nashville, Tennessee, and look forward to sustaining these new friendships and putting into practice the many lessons I learned.

Goodbye, Mriya

The Antonov An-225 departing MSP International Airport on July 2, 2014. (Chris Lundberg photo)

Every story has an aviation angle.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is no different.

At the break of dawn on Feb. 23, Russian troops moved into Ukraine and launched a series of missile attacks near Kyiv and Kharkiv — the country’s largest and second-largest cities, respectively. By lunch time, roughly 40 soldiers and 10 civilians had been killed. To date, at least 16 children have died.

In a situation unfathomable to many of us, Ukrainian citizens are taking up arms, mixing Molotov cocktails, and building defensive walls — they’re fighting for their lives, risking everything for the precious country they call home.

Families are being separated as men of fighting age are forced to stay, while wives and children flee to Poland and other neighboring countries.

Western countries are imposing sanctions left and right in an effort to cripple Russia’s economy — banning transactions with Russia’s central bank, closing their airspace to Russian planes, and suspending Russian athletes and sports teams from major competitions, to name a few.

On Feb. 24, rumors started circulating that the massive record-setting An-225 Mriya — a one-of-a-kind strategic airlift cargo plane built by Ukrainian aircraft manufacturing company Antonov — had been destroyed in a Russian attack on Antonov Airport in Hostomel, a northwestern suburb of Kyiv. 

The rumors were quickly put to rest when that same day An-225 chief pilot Dmitro Antonov posted on Facebook that the aircraft was intact. However, three days later, the Ukrainian Government confirmed on Twitter that the airplane had in fact been destroyed.

“Mriya” means “Dream” in Ukrainian.

The increasing violence in Ukraine — Eastern Europe’s second-largest country — is terrifying, disheartening and upsetting. For Av Geeks in particular, however, the destruction of the An-225 really struck a chord.

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine has committed to rebuilding the iconic airplane, adding, “We will fulfill our dream of a strong, free and democratic Ukraine.” I have no doubt that after this nightmare is over, the country and its driven, devoted and inspiring people will emerge stronger than ever.

As many of you know, my roots are in Minneapolis, and in the summer of 2014, the An-225 made a visit to MSP International Airport where it attracted thousands of spectators. Sadly, I wasn’t one of them — it would be a couple years before I got into aviation. On the eve of its departure out of MSP, I was just relaxing in our 18th floor apartment downtown. I heard a massive roar, unlike anything I had heard before. My husband Scott and I raced to the window and saw this gigantic blue and yellow airplane fly low and slow right over head.

I am grateful to have since met so many outstanding aviation photographers, including the wildly talented Chris Lundberg (@airandskyspotter) who graciously granted me permission to use his stunning photo for this post.

To everyone in Ukraine: We stand with you.

Peace.

Thanks and Giving

It’s hard to believe that another Thanksgiving has come and gone. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are (thankfully!) past us too. Now, for the good stuff.

Today is Giving Tuesday, a “global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world.” The movement began in 2012 and almost a decade later is still going strong.

Personally, I have a lot to be grateful for. I’m happy and healthy, working my dream job in a city I love, and surrounded by the greatest family and friends (and fuzzy friends!) on Earth. With that, I feel it’s my duty to give back, and I’m very grateful to be able to do so.

I just wrapped up my second annual fundraiser, and am so proud to announce that thanks to the kindness of those who helped spread the word and those who purchased 2022 The Great Planes calendars, we raised $750 for Los Angeles-based Pet Rescue Pilots! I am beyond thrilled to have been able to make this donation on behalf of myself, my family, my friends and my fellow Av Geeks, on this Giving Tuesday.

Friends… I can’t stress enough the importance of giving back. If you’re in the position to do so, I highly encourage you to give your time or money to an organization near and dear to YOUR heart. And if you don’t have one in mind, consider showing some love to my friends at Pet Rescue Pilots.

Again, thank you so much. May your hearts be full and your holidays warm!