Crew members give rare insight into the US Air Force’s ‘Doomsday planes’


The crew of Air Force One’s little-know sister aircraft the ‘Doomsday Plane’ have given a rare interview to lift the lid on some of the jet’s secrets.

The modified Boeing 747 is one of four that are designed to whisk high-ranking members of the government into the air in the event of a nuclear attack.

Its crew spoke about some of its capabilities on Tuesday morning as acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan boarded the E-4B at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland for a week-long trip to Asia.      

The aircraft, also known as the National Airborne Operations Center, will ferry Shanahan and his staff to Hawaii, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.    

‘It’s a common misconception, but this plane doesn’t have digital touch screens in the cockpit or elsewhere,’ a crew member said. 

‘The conditions that this plane is meant to fly in call for analogue, since digital tech would fry during a nuclear war.’   

This makes them immune to any large electromagnetic pulse generated by a nuclear disaster.   

‘It’s like a backup Pentagon. There’s always one plane on alert and ready to go — 24 hours, seven days a week,’ a crew member told CNBC.      

‘Think of it as this, the plane is basically a flying command center,’ a Pentagon spokesman said aboard the aircraft.   

E-4B Doomsday planes follow the President of the United States during his travels, whether domestic or international. 

The aircraft, slated to have reached their service life by 2039, have been in operation since 1980. 

The craft carry special equipment and have the capability to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world, and support analysts and strategists in-flight. 

The planes can also be refuelled in the air and have remained airborne and operational for as long as 35.4 hours in one stint. 

However, the craft were designed to be able to operate in-flight for a full week without needing to land.

The planes, also called ‘National Airborne Operation Centers’ when they are in-flight, have special equipment and have the capability to communicate with anyone from anywhere in the world and support analysts and strategists on the flight. 

The E-4Bs are operated by the First Airborne Command and Control Squadron of the 595th Command and Control Group, are coordinated by the United States Strategic Command and are stationed near Omaha, Nebraska, at the Offutt Air Force Base.

When the president is in the US, a Doomsday plane is kept with its engine running at all times and ready at the Offutt base 24 hours a day.

If the President goes abroad, the E-4Bs follow and are known to the crews as ‘Air Force One When It Counts’, according to Politico. 

Should an emergency occur, one of the four craft is thus able to rendezvous with Air Force One almost immediately.

The design of the plane is meant to survive an electromagnetic pulse with all the systems intact, even down to the fact that they still use traditional analog flight instruments because they are less vulnerable. 

A Doomsday Plane is capable of operating with the largest crew of any aircraft in US Air Force history, at 112 people, both flight and mission personnel. The planes all have three decks 

The planes also have in-flight refueling and has been able to remain airborne and operational up to 35.4 hours. Though it has been designed to be able to operate in-flight for a full week. 

The planes are outfitted with special equipment including a wire antenna that can keep the president in communication with the nuclear submarine fleet, even if ground-based communications had been destroyed.

The E-4 fleet were first operated in the 1970s during the Cold War. 

Through to the end of the war, one of the flying war rooms were kept constantly on alert at Andrew’s Air Force Base, ready to lift off with the president on board in just 15 minutes.

It was believed that these planes were the best way to keep the president safe in the case of nuclear attack.

In 2006, there was talk that the E-4B fleet would be retired in 2009 under then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Instead, just one of the fleet was retired in the February of 2007.

When Robert Gates took over as Secretary of Defense in May 2007, he reversed the decision and the plane, with its unique capabilities, returned to the fleet.


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