- The effort to convert two barely used 747-8I jetliners to the next Air Force One jets has already hit a cost overruns—just two months into the conversion process.
- Contractor Boeing blames the cost overrun on the impact of the coronavirus on the engineering effort.
- The two planes are expected to enter service in 2024.
The program to build two new Air Force One presidential transport planes experienced its first cost overrun, an issue contractor Boeing blamed on the coronavirus pandemic. Boeing began work on the planes just two months ago, converting two commercial airliners into VIP transports that will ferry the President of the United States and his entourage around the world well into the 2050s.
Boeing will pay $168 million due to what it called “engineering inefficiencies” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Boeing, with manufacturing facilities in Washington State, was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with 212 employees testing positive for the coronavirus and with one employee dying. Boeing took the unusual step of halting production of commercial aircraft completely for 14 days, starting on March 25, with production restarting April 21.
It is not clear to what extent this impacted the new Air Force One project—the program is a military one, but the planes themselves are new-build 747-8I commercial jetliners built for Russian airline Transaero. Transaero went bankrupt in 2015, stranding the planes without a buyer, and the two aircraft ended up in mothballs in the Mojave Desert. The new aircraft will be known as VC-25Bs, replacing the older VC-25A that entered service in 1990.
Boeing began the conversion process on February 25 at the company's facilities in San Antonio. Like the subjects of all great shop projects, the two giant passenger planes are sitting on jacks. The Air Force explains:
Following ferry flights in spring 2019 to the Boeing modification facility, Boeing prepared the two aircraft for modification by removing the commercial interiors, engines, auxiliary power units, and numerous secondary system components. Additionally, Boeing placed a sophisticated jacking and crib mechanism under each aircraft to reduce structural stress for the initial modification phases.
Next, the aircraft must undergo modifications to incorporate the built-in airstairs. The airstairs, located towards the rear of the aircraft, allow passengers and crew to embark and disembark without help from the ground. President Barack Obama was forced to use the airstairs in 2016 when he arrived at a G-20 meeting Beijing and no staircase was provided for his arrival.
The first phase of aircraft modification involves cutting out large skin and structure areas in both the forward and aft lower lobes of the aircraft and then installing two newly manufactured superpanels. The superpanels contain structural upgrades and cutouts for the VC-25B lower lobe doors including internal airstairs for mission requirements.
The two jets will also receive, “electrical power upgrades, a mission communication system, a medical facility, executive interior, and autonomous ground operations capabilities,” the Air Force says.
Air Force One jets are designed to be as self-sufficient as possible, a reflection of their Cold War role as the president’s flying headquarters during a nuclear war. In the event of war, the planes could expect to fly to an airport or airfield in a remote part of the country, one where ground facilities may not exist or may have been abandoned. The airstairs, new auxiliary power units, and other features are designed to allow the aircraft to operate as independently as possible.
VC-25As are fitted with sophisticated self-protection devices to protect the plane from surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. The AN/AAR-54(V) missile launch warning receiver warns the aircrew of incoming missiles, while the AN/AAQ-24 Nemesis Directional Infra-Red Countermeasures (DIRCM) system fires pulses of IR light at infrared guided missiles to confuse them. The planes can also dispense flares to confuse IR guided missiles and chaff against radar-guided missiles.
The aircraft are also shielded from the effects of electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a phenomenon in which stray voltage created by a nuclear explosion can short out and otherwise cause nearby electronics to malfunction and fail. Although not made clear by the Air Force or Boeing, the new VC-25Bs will certainly receive these upgrades and likely more.
According to Defense News the total cost of the VC-25B program is expected to hit $5.3 billion. The planes were originally expected to enter service in 2024, but it’s not clear if the impact of the coronavirus will cause that date to slip.
Source: Defense News
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