Monday, January 19, 2009

Life on the C-32 and the Obama Burger

Well, no sooner do I post an open question about the drinking preferences of the (for just about fifteen more hours) president elect when I run across some indication of his culinary preferences: video of his first meal order onboard an USAF aicraft. Actually, that may not be strictly true, since as a Senator he probably spent some time on government transport, at least while flying in to Iraq, even if that was a C-17 or something similarly box-lunchy.

Anyhow, thanks to Flight International's Flight Blogger, there is a video of this first semi-presidential flight now available showing portions of Barack's first trip on a air force executive transport. Despite some dubious editing that conjoins a shot of a 747 cockpit (presumably the big VC-25) with the footage of Barack on the C-32, it is rather amusing. The step-framed "walking into history" shot at the end is pretty cheesy, but I remember watching that moment from the other side while riding a stationary bike at the gym.

If the link doesn't work, try again. Flight International's site has been a bit cranky lately.

I particularly like how the pilot is clearly trying to deliver some set-piece welcome speech, noting that this is a big moment in history. Barack is trying to be disarming and chummy. Doesn't seem to fly so well (pun not intended) with the pilot, but goes better with the steward.

But I digress.

Somehow I occupy a rare intersection in the great Venn Diagram of personal interests, that of foodie and airplane nut. The result is, through an aircraft website, I know how Barack Obama, number 44, prefers his burgers.

Medium well (a good choice form a food safety standpoint)
With cheddar cheese (notice how particular he seems that it be cheddar?)
Dijon mustard (though he settles for the offered Grey Poupon)
Lettuce and tomatoes (a standard topping, nothing to comment on there).
Fries and veggies on the side (which says something about him from a health standpoint, I think: he works out daily, so feels comfortable with the caloric hit of some deep fried russet potatoes but recognizes the health benefits of getting some vegetables in the diet).

Regretfully, Barack chooses not to order a drink, to order it off camera, or alcohol is not served aboard Air Force aircraft. Though try to tell me that there isn't wine available on board the big VC-25 and there wasn't some hard liquor aboard the EC-135's and E-6's and E-4's that flew the doomsday Looking Glass and Nightwatch missions, and I'll call you naive.

So the great (current) burning question of my life, What Does Barack Obama Drink will have to go unanswered until my people in D.C. can get back to me. Which isn't to say that I have a network of dedicated Barack-watchers, but rather that I know a few people who are there. And I fully expect that, should any of them have the amazing fortune to meet the new president and ask him one question, the question they choose will not be "Pardon me, Mr. President, but what is that drink in your hand?"

It might, after all, be a grape nehi, which would pretty much undo the whole image and would have to put the whole thing into that "questions I wish I'd never actually gotten an answer to" category. Kind of like learning that John Popper is a bit of a survivalist nut job (the kind of survivalist nut job who carries a zip-loc of weed and a loaded firearm in his glove compartment, mind you) who occasionally performs on stage while wearing a shoulder holster. I wonder if he ever gets confused and tries to load one of his harmonicas or to play a magazine?

Anyway, yet again, I digress.

So we do now know a little about Barack's eating habits. Pretty good. Also pretty political, I must say, despite the funny foreign mustard. I'm still pulling for whiskey with ice.

Now we move on to part two -- which is actually listed first in the title but I did that for reasons of flow and timing and other writerish stuff. I'm one of those people who is always interested in those things that I don't know. My wife, charitably, describes me as a "lifelong learner." I prefer the term "compulsive learner," carrying with it the (very true) atmosphere of inevitability and inescapability and (sometimes) uncontrollability. Well, give me a question (like "what is it like onboard one of these executive transports?) and I will find an answer.

It turns out that, thanks to someone at the Air Force who (presumably accidentally) posted a bunch of not-exact-classified-but-not-exactly-for-public-consumption reference documents for fire/rescue crash crews, I happen to have a floor plan of said C-32. If anyone wants a nice tour description and some interior pictures, Boeing published a nice article about the C-32 and it's little brother the C-40B. The thing is, these airplanes (along with the VC-25, the true "Air Force One") aren't so much secret as obscure. It is a crucial difference.

Picture 1.jpgSo here's the floorplan (nose at the top of the screen -- that little doorway goes to the cockpit).

First section (as Boeing's article will tell you) contains the crew rest area and a communication station ("CSO Station" -- presumably "Communications Systems Officer"). I'm not sure what those six interesting boxes forward of the CSO station are, but I suspect that they are equipment racks.

Abaft the crew/CSO area is the main boarding space (757's are often, unusually among airliners, boarded at an entrance other than the forward-most one). Then comes the "Distinguised (visitors) Stateroom." Not as big or fancy as you might expect -- the ordering scene in the video was, I think, shot in this part.

The balance of the plane grows less interesting as you move further aft. A conference area, first-class or business-class sized seats in a facing club arrangement. Then seating for staff, security, and probably family, press, and other supernumeraries. The Boeing article has a few things to say about where the Secret Service dudes sit and various other stuff. But whatever. At that point, it is just an airliner.

I have to say the air transport has come a long way (as has the campaign) since the days of the DC-9 with the incontinent emergency escape slide.

But this guy, the C-32, is nothing compared to the big VC-25. That's the 747, the airplane that everyone thinks of when they think "Air Force One." Gargantuan, roomy, capable of carrying staffs and support crews and all the host of add-ons that it takes to travel as chief of state of the United States of America. And I want to pause for a moment and clarify why the president has such a damn big plane. It isn't ego. It isn't luxury. It isn't international posturing. Ok, it might end up with a little of any of these, but the thing about any of these executive transports is that they are fitted out to act, to some degree, as a mobile, survivable, airborne command post. And not just in even of nuclear war, terrorist attack, giant tidal wave, or any of the other things that show up in fiction (or the news, for that matter, at least as far as terrorist attack goes).

Even if everything goes fine and the Russians (and everyone else) completely fail to launch a bunch of nuclear missiles at us while the president is at 39,000 feet over the North Atlantic, this aircraft serves as a command post and office that allows for true 24x7 work. Leadership never sleeps, and so a leader must always be equipped with the necessary tools. I have to say the same thing to say about the much maligned use of executive aviation by large corporations. The goal isn't necessary luxury (though, to be sure, a G550 is pretty dish digs) but also an ability to fly, with staff and while working, in privacy and safety. An eight hour flight can transform from dead-time into a productive meeting, a final chance to tune a speech or presentation, a chance to convince a client (or lobbyist or politician, depending on the context).

Besides, in the president's case, a non-trivial chunk of press corps flies onboard Air Force One. And once the press corps has gotten used to direct contact like that, press corps being the way press corps are, asking them to please step off the airplane is a dangerous prospect (as Obama has already encountered, of course).

So while I'll admit that the big VC-25 is a reasonable necessity, I have a suggestion for you, President Obama, should you happen to read this. I don't expect you to, since I haven't gotten a call about the NASA thing and it looks like that gig is going to some Air Force guy. Which is fine with me, since it is someone other than Griffin, which was pretty much my one requirement. But none the less, in the way of bloggers everywhere, I will write in expectation of an audience.

I ask you to do something while our nation is struggling with a staggering economy, and while millions of Americans are out of work, taking voluntary pay cuts or working limited hours. While business are taking the heat for their own travel excesses (even if it is as much about image as anything else) and are cutting costs and restricting their own travel budgets (as strong as my own company is, right now, we are all feeling budgetary restrictions and pressure to conserve where possible), fly the smaller jet.

Yes, if the trip can possibly allow it, if the destination is not so far off and exotic that you must bring a massive support staff and press pool with you, fly the C-32. If crossing the continent (and not the ocean), if visiting Texas and not Afghanistan, if carrying yourself and not your team, show a good example of economy, environmentalism, initiative, and restraint. Fly the C-32.

It'll save a few thousand dollars (probably tens of thousands, frankly, though I don't know for sure) per flight. It'll save some precious fuel. It'll save a little carbon footprint. It will send a message, the sort of message that this country can respect, and it will establish your leadership by example, the best of kinds.

I'll grant that you may not control your own airplane choices -- witness the Blackberry controversy -- but the job title does say "Commander in Chief." The Secret Service is a tough group to master -- and they do have your own safety in mind -- but I think you've got the force of personality to make it stick if you need to.

But however you choose (or are told) to fly, Barack, safe travels, good luck, and bon voyage in this new and daunting job you have chosen.

Footnote: a quick summary of the talked-about airplanes.


This is a converted Boeing 747, which entered service at the end of the elder Bush's administration. It is the "Air Force One" of most settings, the biggest airplane of the fleet, the longest ranged and most capacious and capable and obviously most expensive to operate.


This is another converted 747, but one used as an airborne command post for either the president or senior military leaders. Originally intended as a survivable command post in case of a nuclear war, it is now used primarily as a mobile command post by FEMA, though I've heard that Cheney used to like to fly in it, apparently getting his ya-ya's off in some "here is the button, I could push the button" sort of way.


A converted Boeing 757 twinjet, this is sometimes called "Air Force Two" since it is used to fly (less megalomaniacal) vice presidents around. The term is slang, and it often carries first ladies, senior congressional leaders (Nancy Pelosi was often flown in one), and others who don't quite need the full suite that the VC-25 offers. Note that it is actually used by the president when flying to destinations that cannot accommodate a 747 based platform, so my suggestion is not so totally out of whack.


Even smaller than the C-32, it is simply one step down in size though apparently quite comparable in communication and command capabilities. Often used by theater commanders (e.g. General Tommy Franks). Barack, if you really want to get on the bandwagon, see if you can't use one of these once in a while.

Update (totally unrelated to airplanes but about Barack's food preferences).

Note that I've been blogging about him enough that I apparently suddenly feel comfortable using his first name. Like we were chums. The Internet age is a strange place to be.

My local market has posted what they claim is "Obama's Favorite Hawaiian Macaroni." I can't speak for how broad the range of Hawaiian Macaroni is (ie, if the existence of this single recipe constitutes the depth and breadth of the genre or if we are dealing with an expansive field here), but it does constitute another datapoint on my quest to understand the man by way of the things that really matter.

Now I'm going to go to bed and stop googling "Obama NASA" and just admit that I haven't got the job.

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