So, suppose a US president whose term is scheduled to end, schedule a long flight on board US Air Force One on the same day that the new president is to be swore in - is he allowed to do that, and if not - who is supposed to prevent this?

The question arises from my understanding that Air Force One is the mobile command center of the head of the US armed forces and thus must always be accessible to the US president in case of a surprise attack. If the exiting president is using the plane in a far away place when the new president takes control of the armed forces - one may surmise that would be problem if Air Force One is several flight hours away.

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    I vaguely recall Nixon was in the air when Ford took over. Jan 7, 2021 at 22:48
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    As Azor says, Nixon was onboard 'Air force 1' as he left the office of the presidency. I actually believe this is one of the few instances every in aviation history where an aircraft had to change their callsign midlfight. As Nixon was on board as soon as Ford took over. Jan 8, 2021 at 18:50

6 Answers 6


Air Force One isn't an airplane, it's the callsign for whatever US Air Force airplane the President happens to be flying in. Currently, the airplane most often used as Air Force One is a VC-25A, and the US Air Force has two of them in service. (If the President flies in a military aircraft from a different branch then the callsign would reflect that branch. For example, helicopter transport is usually provided by the Marines, with a callsign of "Marine One", while if the President flies in a commercial aircraft then the callsign would be "Executive One".)

So no, an outgoing president can't prevent the incoming president from using Air Force One, because at noon on January 20, the airplane the now ex-president is flying in will no longer be Air Force One. As an actual case of this happening, the VC-137C carrying Nixon changed its callsign in mid-flight from Air Force One to SAM 27000 when Nixon's resignation took effect and Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the new president.

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    The plane carrying President Nixon to retirement in California on August 8, 1974, changed its designation from Air Force One to to SAM27000 at the moment that President Ford took the oath of office that day...aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2014/december/pilot/….
    – DJohnM
    Jan 7, 2021 at 22:52
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    @Mark is it "any aircraft" the President happens to be flying in, or "any Air Force aircraft" the President happens to be flying in? Jan 8, 2021 at 15:36
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    @phoog: Indeed. The President actually uses non-USAF aircraft almost daily, US Marine aircraft to be precise, and the callsign will then be Marine One. George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier in a US Navy fighter jet for his (in)famous "Mission Accomplished" speech, the callsign in this case was Navy One. A commercial aircraft would be designated Executive One, although that is highly unlikely to happen. Jan 8, 2021 at 17:54
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    @JörgWMittag: Executive One happened under Nixon.
    – Joshua
    Jan 8, 2021 at 21:41
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    @AllenGould Yeah, it's just "Army One." "Coast Guard One" is also possible. And, yes, I suppose the first sitting President to fly into space could cause "Space Force One." :) Although a more likely (and more boring) way for that to happen would be for them to just fly on a Space Force-operated airplane.
    – reirab
    Jan 8, 2021 at 23:38

Other answers covered the technicality around the call sign but regarding your point about the plane being a ”mobile command center of the head of the US armed forces” it's important to note that, besides the two Boeing VC-25, the US Air Force also maintains at least four other airplanes (Boeing E-4) that could serve for that purpose. Typically, one of these accompanies the president on long distance trips, precisely to be able to deal with a crisis situation or the unavailability of the main airplane serving as “Air Force One”.

Obviously, the E-4B is not as comfortable as the VC-25 and its activation would be very alarming but the US military has many options to preserve its chain of command and move the president. So, even taking into account aircraft maintenance schedule and other potential limitations, a last-minute trip by the outgoing president wouldn't leave the new one completely vulnerable. Even to merely degrade that capacity, you would have to deliberately dispatch 6 different airplanes to far-away destinations. Then if the president really needs to travel urgently and cannot wait for one of the VC-25 to come back, s/he could consider using one of the four C-32 or perhaps a purely military plane with no VIP facilities like the Boeing E-6.

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    The Guardian recently reported on the possibility that Trump might fly to Scotland on January 19th. According to the report, the aircraft in that case would be neither the VC-25 nor the E-4 but one based on the 757 that "has occasionally been used by Trump" (the C-32, presumably). I suppose that is because of the runway length at the destination, but as I don't know the runway length there this supposition is very speculative. Regardless of the reason, it seems to be one that signals neither urgency nor alarm.
    – phoog
    Jan 8, 2021 at 17:20
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    Also, as the Wikipedia article notes that the C-32 is primarily used by the vice president, it presumably has sufficient command and control capacity to serve the commander in chief, since the vice president's principal role is to be ready to assume that responsibility at a moment's notice.
    – phoog
    Jan 8, 2021 at 17:30
  • @ohong If he's flying to Trump Turnberry, then Prestwick airport would be the logical choice, rather than Glasgow Airport. Prestiwck's main runway is 2986 metres, and was a designated emergency landing for the Shuttles. It is one of the UK's diversion airports in case of hijacking
    – CSM
    Jan 8, 2021 at 17:30
  • @CSM ok, I guess I'm haunted by my landing in a Scottish airport (I've forgotten which one), in a not-very-large aircraft, where we had a rather hard stop and then had to do a u-turn at the end of the runway to get back to the taxiway. But again, whatever the reason for choosing the C-32, it seems not to be exceptional or cause for concern.
    – phoog
    Jan 8, 2021 at 17:33

"Air Force One" is the designation given to an airplane carrying the President. If whoever the President is changes, then the aircraft carrying the person who used to be the President is no longer "Air Force One". Semantically at least the situation you describe is impossible to happen.

Logisitically, as @waiwai933 states in a comment there isn't just a single airplane that is possible of carrying such a designation. Should the outgoing President schedule a round-the-world trip late on January 19th, there is at least one other fixed-wing aircraft available to them as well as other means of air transportation, e.g. "Marine One".

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    Marine One is generally a helicopter, not a fixed-wing aircraft. Talking about it as an "alternative" confuses the concept that Air Force One is a specific aircraft, rather than a designation for "whatever Air Force plane the President happens to be aboard."
    – T.J.L.
    Jan 8, 2021 at 13:16
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    There are other unusual cases, e.g. when George W. Bush landed on that aircraft carrier in a Lockheed S-3 Viking fighter jet, it was called "Navy One" There's also the potential for "Army One", "Coast Guard One", and "Executive One" (for civilian aircraft), but these are rarely used anymore. (No word on if we'll ever see a "Space Force One"...) Jan 8, 2021 at 14:19
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    @DarrelHoffman any word on the type of vehicle "Bear Force One" is?
    – SQB
    Jan 8, 2021 at 15:22
  • @SQB, a burly one. But I'm not sure much of America is ready for that yet.
    – Seth R
    Jan 8, 2021 at 16:16
  • @DarrelHoffman no word yet, but it seems that in the fullness of time it is very likely, even if the craft is not a spacecraft.
    – phoog
    Jan 8, 2021 at 17:10

As other answers have rightly pointed out, "Air Force One" is not a particular airplane, but rather just the callsign for any U.S. Air Force aircraft on which the sitting President of the United States is currently onboard.

The aircraft that are practically synonymous with the name "Air Force One" are the iconic Boeing 747 aircraft operated as VIP transports by the U.S. Air Force and designated as the VC-25. There are two VC-25As in service, so, if the outgoing President takes one, the incoming President would still have one available, assuming neither was currently down for maintenance. If neither of these were available, there is also a fleet of four Boeing 757 VIP transports also based at Andrews AFB, which are designated the C-32. While it's less iconic, it's actually pretty common for these to serve as Air Force One, particularly when the President needs to fly into a field with a runway that can't accommodate the 747. The 757 has amazing short-field performance for an aircraft of its size, so it can fly almost anywhere that doesn't require a helicopter. And, of course, when a helicopter is needed, there's also a fleet of those operated by the Marines for VIP transport, which the President uses commonly. So, the incoming President would not be short on aircraft choices even if the VC-25s weren't available.

That being said, it's actually not petty at all, but commmon, traditional practice for the outgoing President to use one of the VC-25s to leave Washington, DC when his successor is sworn in. Former President Obama used it to fly to Palm Springs, California when President Trump was sworn in, though the flight ended up diverting to March Air Force Base due to bad weather in Palm Springs on arrival. Former President George W. Bush used it to fly to his childhood home of Midland, Texas after President Obama was sworn in. Of course, the callsign of these flights is not Air Force One, since the sitting President isn't onboard.

As a side note, if the sitting President is flying on an aircraft from a different branch, the callsign will be "[branch name] One." For example, "Marine One," "Navy One," "Army One," etc. If the sitting President is flying on a private aircraft (for example, if Donald Trump had flown on his own 757 after being sworn in as President,) it would be "Executive One."


Possibly, if he orders all the planes destroyed.

Until the new president is sworn in, the previous president retains the powers of their office, and that includes the right to give the military orders. Presumably, this would include orders to destroy and dispose of military equipment, including the planes designated as "Air Force One".

If the current president did so, they would then be able to prevent the next president from flying on Air Force One, because Air Force One no longer exists. It wouldn't even be the first time something like this happened; when Bill Clinton left office, his staff stole from and vandalized the White House causing $15,000 of damage.

  • This would require President Trump destroying every single Air Force airplane, though. At least the ones with more than one seat. Jan 9, 2021 at 18:06

No. Even if Trump is in mid-air during Biden sworn in ceremony, his plane will cease to be Air Force One when Biden has finished swearing in. At that instance his plane will be just another plane in the sky, reverting to it's underlying call sign.

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    Actually Trump ceases to be president at 1700 UTC (legally speaking, at noon EST) regardless of the precise moment at which Biden takes the oath of office.
    – phoog
    Jan 8, 2021 at 17:36

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