From Air Force One to Air Force Un, the aircraft used by heads of state are as diverse as their ideologies. Steve Shaw rolls out the red carpet to see how world leaders fly
On 16 February 2015, the eve of the 74th anniversary of his father’s birth, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was pictured for the first time aboard his private jet – a remodelled Soviet Ilyushin IL-62; the world’s largest jet airliner when first flown in 1963.
Along with top military officials, the Korean leader took to the skies for an aerial tour of a construction project in Pyongyang, while also giving the world a first glimpse inside the aircraft. The existence of the private plane emerged only last May, when state officials released photos of him disembarking onto a red carpet with his wife Ri Sol-ju.
Details of the jet, dubbed Air Force Un, remain scarce but the photographs released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency hint at an exclusive, highly customised interior showing Kim sitting on a luxurious armchair examining documents on a polished rosewood desk complete with crystal ashtray. Another shows him staring out at the Pyongyang construction project while seated at an executive desk.
Heads of state, powerful leaders and royalty around the world have used private jets for many years to enhance their lifestyle, increase their safety and as a symbol of power. The Ilyushin IL-62 favoured by the North Korean leader previously provided aerial transportation for the Russian President but it has now been replaced with a four-engined, long-range, wide-body Ilyushin Il-96-300PU, the two last letters standing for “Command Point” in Russian.
The interiors are inspired by Russian art and feature gold-plated bathroom fittings, marble floors and silk-lined walls. It has been reported that Vladimir Putin personally inspected the furnishings, supplied by Britain’s Diamonite Aircraft Furnishings, while he served as Prime Minister and they are worth an estimated US$17 million. The interior space includes the president’s study and bedroom as well as premises for his aids, security and other personnel, bathroom, lavatory, kitchen and a conference room.
Diamonite Aircraft Furnishings invested US$2.3 million on a new factory following the deal to fit-out the Russian flagship aircraft, but two further orders failed to materialise and the company went bust as a result.
Russia keeps details of the jet closely guarded, especially regarding the Command Point of the aircraft, however it is likely that, similar to the American presidential jet, this refers to some form of military command centre.
The aircraft recently made headlines after the Russian Interfax news agency reported that Putin’s plane might have been travelling almost the same route over Ukraine as Malaysian Flight MH17. An anonymous source claimed the planes’ flight paths intersected at the point where MH17 was shot down. These reports have never been confirmed however, and many sources later called the report inaccurate.
Air Force One
The United States chooses to use Boeing’s VC-25, a military version of the Boeing 747-200B airliner for Air Force One – the aircraft being as symbolic of the American presidency as the White House. This most famous of private jets comes at a price tag of US$325 million and features 4,000 square feet of floor space on three levels. Air Force One is both a luxury private jet and an ‘airborne White House’.
The ‘White House’ section situated at the front of the aircraft includes the president’s executive suite and a private office, which gives the president the ability to address the nation as he would from the Oval Office on the ground. There are separate quarters for guests, senior staff, security personnel and the media located at the rear of the main deck.
Air Force One also carries a full medical crew, is stocked with essential supplies and food and is capable of flying 7,800 miles – roughly one-third of the distance around the world – without stopping to refuel.
The specially configured aircraft also features the ability to be operated as a military command centre in the event of an attack on the US. Modifications include aerial refuelling capability, electronics designed to be shielded from the effects of an electromagnetic pulse and state-of-the-art attack countermeasures, including the ability to jam enemy radar, flares to avoid heat-seeking missiles, and chaff to avoid radar-guided missiles.
The VC-25 entered service during the administration of George H.W. Bush and on 28 January 2015, the US Air Force announced that two Boeing 747-8s would replace it.
“The Boeing 747-8 is the only aircraft manufactured in the United States when fully missionised meets the necessary capabilities established to execute the presidential support mission, while reflecting the office of the president of the United States of America consistent with the national public interest,” said Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James.
On the more extravagant end of the spectrum is the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah’s jet. Bolkiah is head of the small, oil-rich nation of Brunei and also is the proud owner of a luxury Boeing 747-430 private jet. The aircraft reportedly came at the cost of at least US$100 million through Lufthansa and was then subject to a US$120 million interior remodel that included fitting washbasins made of solid gold and crystal.
The sultan stands out amongst world leaders in his ability to pilot the 747 himself. During a visit to Washington in 2013, President Obama was surprised by the nature of his arrival. “He got here yesterday and flew in his own 747, meaning he actually piloted it himself,” said Obama. “I think he’s probably the only head of state who flies a 747 himself. So in case Air Force One pilots have problems, we know who to consult.”
The 747-430 is the biggest plane in the Sultan’s collection, which also includes two Airbus A340s and one Boeing 767.
Not to be outdone, the Prime Minister of India has no less than four Boeing 747-437Bs, each equipped with electronic countermeasures, anti-missile systems and an air-to-air refueling facility. The presidential planes are known by the call sign Air India One.
Japan makes use of two Boeing 747-400 aircraft mostly for the Prime Minister and members of the Imperial Family but they are also designed to evacuate Japanese nationals in emergency situations. In 2019 Japan will replace the 747s with the new Boeing 777-300ER.
Surprisingly, the United Kingdom is the only G20 nation not to have a dedicated head of state or government aircraft, but in 1936 it was the first country to establish a head of state aircraft unit. The King’s Flight was disbanded in 1942 and transportation for both the Royal Family and the government is now provided by a variety of military and civilian operators, primarily by scheduled commercial flights with British Airways. Prince Harry and Prince William even flew on budget airlines (EasyJet and Flybe respectively) from their cousin Zara Phillips’ wedding in 2011.
During his time in office, Prime Minister Tony Blair considered commissioning a UK equivalent to America’s famous Air Force One and proposed two planes for the Queen and the Prime Minister. His successor, Gordon Brown, scrapped the idea when he became PM due to the global economic crisis. Blair’s plans for a ‘Blair Force One’ were criticised but since leaving office he has been regularly seen flying a Bombardier Global Express and Gulfstream IV owned by banker Sir Evelyn de Rothschild.
However, there is still the possibility that the UK will take the dedicated state aircraft route. In 2012 Airbus drew up a plan for the Prime Minister and Royal Family to travel in converted A330 MRRTs air tankers on foreign visits but they have yet to submit an official proposal.
For now, the UK is the most prominent nation without a dedicated state aircraft, falling behind countries including Madagascar and Armenia.