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A Chat with Robert F. Dorr About His Popular Book, “Air Force One”

Written by on Thursday, September 6th, 2012

I got another chance to sit down and have an interview with author and USAF enthusiast, Robert F. Dorr. Last time we chatted about his book, “Mission to Berlin,” but this time we’re covering “Air Force One,” his book about the world’s most important aircraft.

1. Beyond the fact that it is the President’s plane, why do you think Americans are so fascinated with Air
Force One?

The “Flying White House” — that was the title we planned, originally for my book, which we actually named “Air Force One” — is always visible in the news. Every president has flown more than his predecessor. The chief executive’s plane was once a method of transportation, to carry him from Point A to Point B. Increasingly, it has become an office in the sky where work is performed while en route. Americans see plenty of this aircraft, with its colorful blue-white color scheme created by artist Raymond Loewy, because the president makes so many arrivals and departures. People see it on the outside and wonder what goes on inside. My book takes them inside.

2. Did you learn anything surprising or unexpected about Air Force One while you were doing research for your book?

The two questions I’m asked most: (1) Is there is an escape capsule, like in the movie “Air Force One” (1997)? (2) What about fighter escort? The escape capsule was actually invented for the movie “Escape from New York” (1981) in which Donald Pleasence portrayed an unlikeable president and, no, the aircraft doesn’t have an escape capsule in real life. There are exceptions, but the president’s plane isn’t usually accompanied by fighters because those who plan his travel would never place him in a position of needing fighters.

Air Force One New York

Image source: Wikipedia.org

3. We tend to think of Air Force One as a massive plane, but isn’t it true that other types of aircraft have also been designated as Air Force One?

The term “Air Force One” is the radio callsign for any Air Force aircraft carrying the president. The term came into existence during the Eisenhower administration. In the 1960s, there were several small aircraft that were used for short flights, such as carrying Lyndon B. Johnson from Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas to the Johnson Ranch elsewhere in Texas. These include the twin-prop Convair C-131 and the Lockheed C-140 JetStar executive transport, neither of which were massive.

4. Do you have a favorite Air Force One?

I flew aboard the last VC-137C (Boeing 707-320B) when it was retired on September 8, 2001. It was a beautiful day for flying and the aircraft went from Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland to San Bernardino, California. That aircraft is now displayed at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and is on the cover of my book “Air Force One.” Three days after that memorable flight, I woke up on my birthday and it was another beautiful day for flying.

5. Do you think that any presidential aircraft were poorly designed or not up to par?

It might not have been prudent to spend a lot of time aboard the C-87 Liberator, a version of the B-24 bomber, that was assigned to Franklin D. Roosevelt, although Roosevelt never flew in it.

6. Can you share something interesting about the type of personnel who work on Air Force One?

They tend to be the sort of clean-cut, button-down ordering valium folks who are found widely in the Air Force today. They’re very competent and absolutely trustworthy. Not all are gifted with a sense of humor.

Michelle Obama in Air Force One

Image source: Home-designing.com

7. How have the various Air Force Ones given us glimpses into the personalities of our nation’s presidents?

I tried to keep politics out of my book “Air Force One” but not necessarily the personalities of our leaders. It appears that Richard M. Nixon never walked up to the front of the aircraft while in flight to visit with the pilots, navigator, and radio operators. Lyndon B. Johnson installed a seat in the plane’s conference room that enabled him to look down on everyone else in the room. Crewmembers told me that Bill Clinton was almost impossible to wake up when sleeping. Nearly all the crewmembers personally liked nearly all of the presidents, although Nixon perhaps a little less than the others.

8. How does Air Force One maintain a balance in its multiple roles of passenger transport, flying office, and military command post?

Well, that’s exactly what Air Force One is — a military aircraft with a wartime mission. It’s not just an airliner with a different paint scheme. Those three functions, transport, office and command post, were built into the current presidential VC-25As (Boeing 747-200s) when their interiors were designed and installed. The VC-25A can be refueled in flight and can serve as a command post in wartime. Until the VC-25A was introduced in 1990, a separate aircraft was needed for the command-post function. This was the E-4B, another version of the Boeing 747, also covered in my book.

9. What are some of the biggest differences between the first Air Force One and the current Air Force One?

The term was first used for a Boeing 707 and is used today for a Boeing 747.

10. What was your favorite thing about writing this book?

The writing part is hard. When it’s finished, I enjoy talking to people who’ve read it. My contact information is available to anyone and I’m always urging people to contact me at (703) 264-8950 or at robert.f.dorr@cox.net if they have questions, or would like to talk, or want a signed book from the author. I’ve had many opportunities to speak to groups about presidential aircraft. One of my appearances, at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, was filmed by C-Span and still appears on television occasionally. I appear on camera discussing presidential aircraft on a History Channel program called “Modern Marvels.” I love meeting people who share my love of aviation. I have Facebook pages entitled “Air Force One” and “Robert F. Dorr,” and everyone is invited.

11. You’re trying to keep the book “Air Force One” in print, right?

Yes. The first version of my book appeared in 2002. At that point, no one had published a book about presidential flying for almost three decades. No one had ever done both a history of the “Flying White House” and an intimate look at the current version. A year after publication in 2003, there were three other books on the market also titled “Air Force One.” One was similar to mine. One was a reporter’s account of his travel with presidents. They were all good but my book has outlasted all of them and was updated in 2011, so it is both timely and current.

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