Air Force One - control and mission statement

Hypothetically, if the President showed up at Andrews AFB with a lot of suitcases and family members and said “juice up the jet and take me to Moscow”- would they do it?

What if, in the same scenario, the President was known to be running ahead of a subpoena? Formally under indictment?

What (if any) authority would be able to tell them “Don’t leave the ground.”?

Keep in mind, this is a GQ question. I’m not talking about pilots or ground authorities simply refusing to do their jobs on moral grounds with trumped-up safety concerns. :wink: But what legally is the mission statement, and who has the authority to control the use of the equipment and/or the movements of the President?

The crew of Air Force 1 are military personnel (it’s right there in the “Air Force” part of the name), and the President is commander in chief of the military, and in everyone’s chain of command. The only possible grounds for refusal would be if the crew considered it an illegal order, and making that decision would probably require information they’re not privy to, since the President does, after all, sometimes need to fly to other countries.

I suppose that there’d be room for refusal if the President phrased the order as “Fly me to Moscow so I can avoid this subpoena”, or something, but he could just as well say “Fly me to Moscow, because an emergency has come up, and I need to meet face-to-face with Putin to address it”. Or just “Fly me to Moscow, and you don’t need to know why”.

The President of the United States is the ultimate executve authority and the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States,” (US constituion, Article II, section 2, clause 1). Although this does not explicitly include the Air Force (as it, and the essential concept of air power did not exist in 1788), it is understood that the President has direct command over all branches of the military as well as all executive departments, and every legal order he issues is to be executed with full lawful force.

That being said, the operation of Air Force One is not like buying a ticket for a commercial flight, or even chartering a private plane. It involves elaborate planning and logistics to assure that the flight is secure and not dependent upon any local resources or support by any government that is not a highly reliable ally. It also requires planning to assure that military and other security support in the case of any instability or attack, and also that thr appropriate Cabinet secretaries and advisors are available to support the Vice President and anyone else in the line of succession should the President be incapacitated or out of contact. (This is less of a concern given global comsat coverage, but the possibility still exists that a mechanical failure or attack could interfere with communications and require an immediate response by executive authority, e.g. a presumptive nuclear attack and response.) Flying Air Force One anywhere cannot be done just on a whim regardless of executive direction.


For the reasons you state, it ***should not be *** happen. I’m not sure that means it “cannot be done.”

Doesn’t the Secret Service actually have some authority over the President when it comes to safety?

What if instead of AF1, he just asked to get taken to the airport? Even that, I know would typically require a weeks planning and a motorcade, but if he insisted that the Beast (limo) be brought around and take him to the airport NOW, I would guess the SS could say no way.

It’s very commonly asserted that this is the case, but I’ve never really seen it backed up, and it would raise grave constitutional and political questions if it were the case.

The Secret Service can certainly advise, recommend, cajole, or plead with the POTUS. The agents assigned to the President’s actual protective detail could go so far as to threaten to resign en masse if the POTUS persists in some foolish and frivolous course of action. (“But I like driving around with the top down in my bright red convertible with the personalized ‘POTUS’ license plate. And if I don’t announce where I’ll be on the official White House web page at least 48 hours in advance, how will the crowds of my adoring fans know where to show up and throw bouquets of flowers at me?”)

Of course in the face of some immediate threat–“GUN!” “BOMB!” “KILLER RABBIT!”–the Secret Service agents can (and I’m sure would) just sort of physically dog-pile the POTUS and drag him off to safety. But to give the Secret Service the actual legal authority to override the President’s decisions would raise very serious issues about who is actually in charge of the country. As has already been alluded to by Chronos, even something as unlikely as an impromptu visit to the capital of a semi-hostile foreign power could be a wise and statesmanlike decision, necessary to avert World War III or coordinate Earth’s defenses against the impending extraterrestrial invasion or something like that.

We really don’t want an unelected and unaccountable “Praetorian guard” with the authority and power to override the decisions of the person designated by the Constitution and (indirectly) chosen by the American people to be chief of the executive branch of the federal government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. (Note that none of this has anything to do with whether or not you or I personally voted for or approve of the current occupant of the office.)

Operating the official Air Force One aircraft requires extensive logisitical support and coordination. There are other aircraft such as the National Airborne Opeations Center (NAOC) which do stand by to fly on virtually a moment’s notice in the case of an imminent nuclear attack or terrorist operation which could threaten the President (and are redesignated as “Air Force One” when POTUS is aboard) but they have specific mission profiles somthe President insisting that the aircraft be flown directly to an unfriendly foreign capital such as Moscow would be suspicious at best, notwithstanding the fact that it would need aerial refueling or ground servicing to make such a flight.

Legally, the President could give such an order, and no one in federal service could legally refuse to comply. Practically speaking, it could not be done on a moment’s notice, or even in just a few hours before someone else could declare 25th amendment challenge to the competency of any president who would issue such a spurious instruction.


To summarize, the Commander-in-Chief can give the order, but he can’t make the impossible happen. If the aircraft hasn’t been prepped, it can’t take off. (Even leaving the rest of the normally-mandatory logistics, security, and protocol issues aside.)

Isn’t AF1 and POTUS basically at the logistical mercy of whichever nation they’re at at the moment, i.e., Russia or China, which are not “highly reliable allies” at all? The jet couldn’t take off from an airport in Moscow or Beijing without the airports there giving them the fuel they need, right?

Technically, Air Force One can be refueled in-air, but for safety reasons they usually refuel it on the ground. The plane also has a range of 7800 miles (according to The Google) so it can go pretty far without refueling. If they do need to refuel, they typically stop at a U.S. military base somewhere. According to the Washington Post, this it typically a base in either Germany or Alaska, depending on where the plane is going.

If the President were taking a trip to Russia, they’d stop in Germany to refuel, go to Russia, return to Germany and refuel again, then go back to the U.S.

So, no, they are not at the logistical mercy of whichever nation they are in at the moment.

The USAF would be obliged to follow POTUS’s orders, but as soon as the 25th Amendment is invoked VPOTUS can order them to turn around or land at the closest US base.

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Exactly that. If Air Force One is not able to land at a US Air Force base or Naval Air Station which is controlled by the US, then all necessary logisitical support is in place to allow it to take off and egress to a safe location without any local support whatsoever other than air traffic control (and dispensing with that if necessary).

I think few people realize the incredible amount of logistical support that goes into transporting the President. It isn’t just the Secret Service and the Marines (flying Marine One helicopters); there is full medical support including blood supplies and surgeons in every field of major trauma, USAF Pararescue and Air Combat Controllers standing by in case of any emergency requiring evac or SAR; DEVGRU or 1SOFD-D providing immediate counterterrorism and hostage rescue support; and of course, the state of the art in communication allowing the President to address any possible issue, foreign or domestic, almost as readily as in the Oval Office even if satcom is lost. Every move requires tens of thousands of person-hours to plan and execute prior to actual transportation. None of this happens “on a whim”; even the emergencies are executed to extensive and elaborate planning for virtually any contingency.


Lyndon Baines Johnson on the subject:

Source(last paragraph of the article).

I saw a show on a Bush the younger trip to Africa. They flew in their own jet fuel for refueling , they did not want to trust the local supplies.

Umm, if the president were avoiding a pending arrest or subpoena, how would wanting to flee to Moscow be a 25th amendment violation? This is a completely sane and reasonable thing for the president to do.

Stranger, I think you’re over thinking it.

In the OP hypothetical, if trump showed up at the doorstep of AF1 with Ivanka and suitcases full of money, wanting to fly to Moscow, (and never coming back!) the logistical support means nothing. He won’t need the limo, or the SS or doctors or staff or chefs or anything when he lands in Russia. His buddy Putin will provide all that. Obviously, no support staff, reporters, whatever, are coming along. No fighter escort. No cargo plane full of black SUVs. All he needs is a pilot and enough fuel. Then the question is, would the pilot fly him?

Yes, it would be suspicious for the President to order one of the ready-at-an-instant’s-notice planes to take him. It would definitely be a sign that Something Was Up. But it’s above the pilot’s authority to know what that Something is, and it might, for all he knows, be Something legitimate.

SamuelA, the 25th Amendment doesn’t apply to when the President is insane; it applies when he’s “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. A Vice President and Cabinet could certainly make the case that being on the run from the law to a semi-hostile nation constitutes such an inability; whether it actually does or not would then be up to Congress to decide.

Correct. For more:

Presidential insanity, coma or mental or physical disability were all discussed at the time of the debates over the ratification of the 25th Amendment.

He’s not allowed to fly TF1 (Trump Force 1) while president because it doesn’t have the necessary secure comms, air-to-air refueling, & evasive (flares, chafe, etc) equipment.

Again…“not allowed” by whose authority? There’s even a special Presidential Call Sign already picked out and ready to go.