How the Air Force One Hybrid Works

By: Chris Pollette

The new hybrid Air Force One sits next to its predecessor on the tarmac in Washington D.C. in this April 1, 2008 photo.
The new hybrid Air Force One sits next to its predecessor on the tarmac in Washington D.C. in this April 1, 2008 photo.
Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

Acting on an initiative created by President George W. Bush, the U.S. government has unveiled a new version of the president's venerable aircraft, which most people know as Air Force One. The new version, a modified Boeing 747-400, uses a combination of flexible fuel and hybrid technology to improve fuel efficiency as it shuttles the president to appointments around the world.

Alternative sources of energy are a stated goal of U.S. President George W. Bush's energy plan. In his 2008 State of the Union address, Bush told Congress, "our security, our prosperity, and our environment all require reducing our dependence on oil" [source: The White House]. In the past, Bush has mentioned using switchgrass for automotive fuel and clean coal for houses and businesses. High fuel prices have also done much to convince Americans to embrace fuel conservation. And 2007 was a record-setting year for sales of hybrid automobiles -- an estimated 2.4 percent of all cars sold in the United States were hybrids, according to research firm J.D. Power & Associates [source: Bloomberg News].

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Why build a hybrid Air Force One, and why now? "The plane -- like the bald eagle -- is a symbol of the United States," one U.S. Air Force representative said. "Converting the aircraft makes a powerful statement to the world that the country is willing to become a leader in alternative fuel technology."

The new hybrid Air Force One will enter service in late 2008, replacing its predecessors, two 747-200Bs with tail numbers 28000 and 29000. The tail number for the new jet will be 40108-H.

So how is the hybrid Air Force One different from other aircraft? Why is it special, and how was this enormous initiative kept under wraps until its unveiling? Read on to find out.

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Air Force One Hybrid Construction

Cooking oil, used to power the four flexible-fuel engines on Air Force One, is taken from the White House and refined to use as aviation biofuel.
Cooking oil, used to power the four flexible-fuel engines on Air Force One, is taken from the White House and refined to use as aviation biofuel.
Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

The new Air Force One hybrid is a modified Boeing 747-400ER, an extended-range version of the classic jetliner. On a typical 747-400ER, four engines deliver around 63,300 pounds (28,710 kg) of thrust [source: Boeing].

Originally, says U.S. Department of Defense contractor Dr. Vivian Blanchard, the government considered a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, an aircraft designed from the ground up to be more energy efficient than other passenger planes. Boeing says its Dreamliner is 20 percent more fuel efficient than other comparable aircraft. Normally outfitted for passenger travel, the Dreamliner can carry 210 to 290 passengers depending on its configuration, though modified for presidential use, the plane seats fewer. A normal 787 can travel 7,650 to 8,500 nautical miles (14,200 to 15,750 km) [source: Boeing].

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There were problems with the plane, Blanchard says. "Unfortunately, Air Force One would need to be larger to accommodate the needs of the president, and Boeing couldn't adapt the airframe to carry the number of batteries we would need to make the hybrid Air Force One work in the time frame we wanted. So we had to go to plan B."

The first thing engineers needed to accomplish was to install the hybrid energy system.

Air Force One Hybrid uses more than 2,000 lead-acid batteries in a parallel hybrid team with its four regular jet engines. That means that the plane's engines rely on a combination of fuel and battery power to turn, making them work more efficiently.

To keep the plane from relying on fossil fuels, Air Force One Hybrid's engines use a flexible fuel system. Every day, a special team collects used cooking oil from the White House, the Capitol building and other government-owned commissaries to be cleaned and reused as biofuel. In a pinch, and for areas where biofuels aren't readily available, jet fuel can still be used.

Since the job of Air Force One is to help the president make appearances around the world, it has to be ready to fly long distances. A typical 747-400ER can carry around 63,500 gallons of fuel (240,370 L), which is enough to take it from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia [source: Boeing]. The hybrid version, Blanchard said, is capable of distances at least that long using jet fuel alone. The parallel hybrid system adds another 500 miles (805 km) to that under optimal circumstances.

Col. Branch Heward, of the Presidential Airlift Group stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., said he likes taking the new Air Force One up. "It's as smooth as silk," he said. "But it's strange stepping off the plane and the engines smell like Freedom Fries."

Blanchard said she expects that the new Air Force One will be around 15 to 20 percent more energy efficient than its predecessors, "though we certainly will be working to improve upon that."

Batteries are large and take up a lot of space, so what had to be scrapped from Air Force One to make room for the new hybrid powerplants? Find out on the next page.

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Air Force One Hybrid Amenities

Thousands of lead-acid batteries help power the four jet engines on the new Air Force One, but some of the amenities had to be removed to make room.
Thousands of lead-acid batteries help power the four jet engines on the new Air Force One, but some of the amenities had to be removed to make room.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

Since 1943, the president of the United States has been able to travel in an aircraft named Air Force One. Though the name is the military designation for any airplane carrying the U.S. president, the moniker, and the planes that carry it, have captured the attention of people around the world.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to use an aircraft for transportation, a Boeing 314 Clipper. In 1962, a Boeing 707-320B debuted as the first jet Air Force One [source: Boeing].

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The hybrid version of the 747-400ER is much like the 747-200s that carried the commander in chief around the world before it. It carries advanced avionics systems, the ability to refuel in flight, and plenty of room for government personnel, security and the press.

While the last pair of 747s to serve as Air Force One were in service for 18 years, the hybrid Air Force One will be the only one of its kind until Boeing can retrofit another with the hybrid technology, which Blanchard said she expects will take another eight to 14 months. "It's expensive technology and took a long time to test," she said. "But they said they'd do their best to squeeze us in when they could."

Blanchard said the government had a hard time keeping the project classified until its debut. "There were so many people working on it, but of course it was a top-secret project. Thankfully, it looks just like the regular version of the plane from the outside, otherwise it might have gotten leaked."

To make room for the massive numbers of lead-acid batteries that it takes to generate power for the aircraft engines, however, something had to give. One of the aircraft's two galleys, or in-flight kitchens, had to be removed. The plane still has an onboard pharmacy, communications systems, self-defense systems and a soft-serve frozen yogurt and topping bar.

"Unfortunately, we had to have the bowling alley removed," Blanchard said. "President Bush isn't much of a kegler, but many in his cabinet are. I suppose Dr. Rice [U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice] will have to continue her quest for a perfect 300 back on the ground now."

For more information on the real Air Force One, hybrids, April Fools' jokes and related topics, visit the next page.

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More Great Links

  • Ohnsman, Alan. "Analysts see dip in U.S. hybrid sales after record year in 2007." Bloomberg News. Jan. 5, 2008 (Mar. 28, 2008). http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/business/ story.html?id=6ab44793-daa8-4e8d-ba8c-e0fe2a5fbbd5
  • Wallace, James. "Introducing … Boeing's electric 7E7." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. May 20, 2004 (Mar. 28, 2008).http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/business/174159_electric20.html
  • "Air Force One." Boeing. (Mar. 28, 2008).http://www.boeing.com/defense-space/military/af1/
  • "Bush, touting his energy plan, promotes alternative fuels." Associated Press. Jan. 24, 2008 (Mar. 28, 2008).http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/01/24/america/NA-GEN-US-Bush-Energy.php
  • "State of the Union Address." The White House. Jan. 28, 2008 (Mar. 28, 2008).http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/01/20080128-13.html
  • "VC-25 -- Air Force One." U.S. Government factsheet. (Mar. 27, 2008).http://www.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?fsID=131
  • "787 Dreamliner." Boeing. (Mar. 28, 2008).http://www.boeing.com/commercial/787family/background.html

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