Six months after the White House said President Trump saved taxpayers $1.4 billion for two new Air Force One aircraft, service officials have offered an explanation for that figure. But first, let’s recap how we got here.
Here’s a timeline of contract awards to Boeing and other significant Air Force One-related events:
- January 2015: Air Force says the new Air Force One will be a 747-8 aircraft.
- Jan. 29, 2016: Boeing receives a $25.8 million contract to start designing the new Air Force One.
- July 15, 2016: Boeing receives a $127 million for more design work.
- Sept. 29, 2016: Boeing receives a $16 million contract for work on “classified requirements” of the new planes.
- Dec. 6, 2016: President-elect Trump tweets: “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!”
- Jan. 27, 2017: Boeing receives another $3 million contract for design work.
- Aug. 4, 2017: The Air Force awards Boeing a contract for two 747-8 aircraft that were built for a now-defunct Russian airline. Terms of the deal are not disclosed.
- Feb. 27, 2018: Trump and Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg reach a handshake agreement to convert the two 747-8 aircraft into Air Force One configuration. At the time, a White House spokesman claimed $1.4 billion in savings.
- July 17, 2018: Air Force awards Boeing a $3.9 billion deal to convert the jets.
- July 18, 2018: The White House repeats that the $3.9 billion deal saves taxpayers $1.4 billion.
The big question since February has been, how is that $1.4 billion being calculated? Here, at last, is the Air Force’s answer: “Boeing discussed an uninflated $4.4B price with the President in January 2017. After adjusting for inflation consistent with how we budget for and expend money, and after adding in the risk reduction effort, the $4.4B equates to $5.0B, or $1.1B in savings. More recent Boeing estimates and Boeing's initial offer push the savings to over $1.4B,” said Capt. Hope Cronin, a service spokeswoman, in an email.
What we still don’t know:
- How much did the government pay for the two 747-8s? And as far as we have been told, that amount is not included in the “total program value” of $3.9 billion.
- How much will the Air Force pay Boeing to maintain the two new planes for the first five years they’re flying around the president? Service officials say: “The cost for the five-year logistics contract is not available at this time. The Government and Boeing will finalize the logistics cost once the VC-25B design is complete, which will allow the Government to properly scope the logistics support required to support two Presidential, mission-ready aircraft beginning in 2024.”
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Lockheed Martin this week announced that it has finished installing new engines and a slew of other upgrades to the Air Force’s C-5 Galaxy, the largest aircraft in the U.S. military. The formal name for the improvement project was “Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program.” The project was supposed to drastically improve the reliability of the massive planes so much, the Air Force changed the planes name to the Super Galaxy.
Now after spending $7 billion to update the C-5, it turns out the Air Force doesn’t have the money to fly all of those planes. Last year, service officials said they had parked 12 C-5s in what the military calls back-up status. The planes are essentially in purgatory, somewhere between active and retired aircraft.
So despite the improvements, the overall fleet’s reliability has been steadily declining, apparently thanks to the parked planes and a 2017 landing gear problem. Mission capable rates fell nearly 9 percent between 2015 and 2017, according to Air Force data. Last year, the service’s 48 C-5Ms had a mission capable rate — that is, the portion of the fleet fully available for a mission — of just 60 percent. (We’ve asked Air Mobility Command for comment about this, but haven’t heard back yet. We’ll update you if and when we get a response.)
A few months ago, an Air Force spokeswoman told me that mission-capable rates “are just a snapshot in time. Aircraft can be coded as ‘non-mission capable’ for a variety of reasons to include scheduled routine maintenance and system modifications.”
But there is no question that the new engines make the plane more powerful. Lockheed: “The C-5M holds 89 FAI-certified world aviation records, the most by any aircraft type. These records include time-to-climb with payload, altitude with payload, and greatest payload carried.”
A C-5 history lesson: How bad was its reliability? Read this 2004 Air Force Magazine feature by John Tirpak, which recounts in painful detail a C-5’s attempts to fly from Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base to Europe. It took the plane seven tries to get in the air. Back in 2007, an Air Force general told me that when a mission called for a C-5, two planes were loaded in hopes that one would be able to take off.
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