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The Lofty Manor Air Force One, Now A Hit On Screen, Is A Sparkling Symbol Of U.S. Prestige

Kathy Lewis The Dallas Morning News

The real Air Force One may not have actor Harrison Ford on board, a James Bond-like ejection capsule or a thrill-a-minute flight plan.

But the glistening silver, blue and white plane that has carried presidents around the world has a drama all its own and has long been a major attraction wherever it swoops down.

“Next to the Oval Office, I think it’s the most important symbol of American power in the world,” said Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

And it’s a symbol that goes wherever the president travels.

The new Columbia Pictures movie in which terrorists hijack the jumbo 747 not only has generated the predictable could-it-happen speculation, it also has focused even more attention on what arguably may be the world’s most famous aircraft.

Air Force One groupies range from schoolchildren to golf pros to royalty. Earlier this month, King Juan Carlos I of Spain asked for a tour. Several years ago, Princess Diana arranged one for her two boys.

The plane is unlike any commercial or corporate jet. It’s a flying White House, with secure telephones and faxes, computers and photocopiers. It has a presidential office, conference room, shower and stateroom with twin beds.

The jumbo Boeing 747 seats about 70 passengers and has 87 phones, 16 video monitors and 11 videocassette recorders. It can fly 9,600 miles without refueling, has a maximum airspeed of 701 mph, can be refueled in midair and has special anti-attack capabilities.

In a written statement to the Daily News of New York recently, Bush said, “It was reassuring to have a device that would fend off heat-seeking missiles.”

The plane’s equipment may be sophisticated, but the decor is subtle. The current Air Force One was ordered during Ronald Reagan’s second term; the color scheme is California earth tones.

The plane has a room for “major medical procedures” - and it’s occasionally the medical facility of choice during foreign trips. There are spacious compartments for the Secret Service, White House aides, visitors and a small press contingent. In each cabin there are televisions, which show a choice of movies or, upon landing, pick up the local news.

“It’s a wonderful airplane and a true compliment to the Reagans because they designed it with the needs of presidents and the working staff and working press in mind,” said White House press secretary Mike McCurry.

Over the years, the plane’s stewards have tended to the care and feeding of many presidents. The food, however, is not fancy. Government budgets must be observed. Breakfast burritos are regular fare. McCurry describes the meals as “Air Force, not like traveling on business class, but pretty good.”

The Air Force crews made sure, for instance, that Lyndon Johnson had his Fresca and Texas-style chili (no beans and grease scraped off), that Gerald Ford had A-1 sauce for his cottage cheese, that Ronald Reagan had macaroni and cheese with his meat loaf.

They also picked up barbecue for Bush in Texas and kept the broccoli away from him.

And they have worked hard to meet Clinton’s low-fat diet, with selections such as turkey sausage. But they also keep him in ginger ale, milk and chocolate chip cookies, and on a moment’s notice can whip up peach cobbler.

Longtime steward Howie Franklin, who now manages the Brunswick County Airport in Southport, N.C., recalled how President Carter kept telling the stewards they didn’t have to cut the crusts off his sandwiches.

Technically, Air Force One is the designation for whatever aircraft the president is aboard. There are two 747s, which cost a total of $249 million, including spare engine parts. Occasionally, the president flies on smaller aircraft.

The Air Force One designation and current exterior color scheme began with the Boeing 707 first used by President John F. Kennedy.

Initial movie reviews from current and former White House officials suggest that the makers of “Air Force One” did a good job of recreating the plane.

They captured the earth tones, the swivel chairs and the clocks that flash Washington, local and destination times. But the plane’s configuration is not exact, and literary license apparently produced the movie’s huge automatic weapons compartment.

Clinton arranged a tour of Air Force One for Ford (who plays the president) and several others associated with the movie. Movie officials, however, said no photos were allowed, and some things were off limits.

The tour came shortly after a Wyoming dinner party, where Clinton saw Ford ask actress Glenn Close to play his vice president.

Despite the recent flap over the use of the president’s image in the new movie “Contact,” Clinton seems to be a big film fan. He has made several favorable comments about recent films that portray the presidency. He liked “Independence Day” but said it made him wonder whether he should take flying lessons.

He has been so fascinated with “Air Force One” that he has viewed it twice, aides said.

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