Non-Stop Flight

Story by Reagan Holmes

Photo: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel boards a plane on Joint Base Andrews, Md., May 28, 2014, on his way to Anchorage, Alaska, his first stop during his 12-day trip to Asia and Europe.   (DoD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Aaron Hostutler/Released)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel boards a plane on Joint Base Andrews, Md., May 28, 2014, on his way to Anchorage, Alaska, his first stop during his 12-day trip to Asia and Europe. (DoD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Aaron Hostutler/Released)

Ever wonder what it’s like to ride in the same plane as Secretary of Defense? The Boeing E-4, which many mistake as Air Force One?  The Boeing E-4’s primary mission is to provide a comfortable office in the sky for the Secretary of Defense, but in times of high alert the plane and the crewmembers are ready for any mission.  It may look like Air Force One but it’s not.  The plane only takes the call sign “Air Force One,” on the rare occasion that the president boards it.  But that’s one of many interesting facts about this plane.

As you can imagine, the Boeing E-4 is more than just your typical commercial plane with cool gadgets to boot. In fact, the plane is actually nicknamed the “Doomsday plane,” since it serves a dual role as a survivable mobile command post in the event that the ground nuclear command centers are destroyed.  The plane is fully equipped with a “Command Room” and “Pods” to get a little shut-eye— well, okay… I may be exaggerating a bit with the Star Trek references but it does have a conference room and even a cozy bunk to sleep on during flight.  The plane is also equipped with the necessary gear and apparatuses in preparation for any potential event such as a nuclear war, a terrorist attack, or even an alien invasion.

Built in 1974, the Boeing E-4 became known as the plane for the Secretary of Defense travels (and sometimes the president). The plane has a wingspan of 196’, and a length of 231’. It’s operated by the 1st Airborne Command and Control Squadron, which happen to be one of the oldest squadrons of the United States Air Force.

The Boeing E-4 is used to take the Secretary of Defense from country to country.  On certain overseas trips, it might take an entire day for the plane to arrive at its destination; which calls on it to be refueled in the air.  Can you imagine being on a plane for that long? Well, luckily for passengers the plane has comfortable features such as larger seats and more space you would typical find on the business or first-class section of a commercial plane. In fact, the plane has three decks plus a lower lobe. There is an area for the press, (yes, sometimes the press are invited along on the ride) and computer room to keep things running smoothly on land while the plane is up in the sky. The plane also has ovens, a coffee maker and a fridge for preparing meals while away on travel. Plus it has its own closet/ dressing area for when the Secretary of Defense has to prepare for a meeting with officials from another country. Because of the time difference in different parts of the world the Secretary sometimes must depart the plane and go straight into a meeting. There is no rest for the weary especially, especially for leadership at his level.

Over the intercom: “Is there a doctor on board?”  Why? Yes there is.” A Retired United States Air Force Col. (Dr.) doctor by the name of John Baxter who’s had the distinct honor of serving as the travel physician to former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, William S. Cohen, Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and the current Secretary Hagel. Now, what could possibly go wrong on such an awesome plane? Well, Dr. Baxter says people don’t often realize that flying at high altitudes can cause headaches, leave you feeling fatigue and sometimes swollen. His job is not only to make sure the principal and staff stay healthy but he’s responsible for the health of the flight crew as well. “It’s my job to make sure the people aboard this plane get to the right place, at the right time, to do their mission,” Baxter says.  At times that can even mean, diverting a flight to treat an ill patient in a foreign hospital.

“Our (U.S. Military) patient population is the best in the world. They work long hours, doing the nation’s work. It’s an honor for me to take care of them.”

So while most people board a plane and get to watch a movie, read a book or even sleep during the flight, the Secretary of Defense, government workers and some of the finest service members continue to work without missing a beat. The secretary is busy with briefings, making calls and giving interviews while en route to his destination.  It’s VIP travel for people doing VIP work.

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Non-Stop Flight