President Trump’s more than three-hour Thanksgiving ‘fly-in’ to Afghanistan was a closely guarded secret, carried out with cloak-and-dagger precision to ensure the U.S. President’s security and safety.
The planes they used to smuggle President Trump out of Mar-a-Largo (from a near-by local airport), flew from Florida aboard non-disclosed “special mission” aircraft to Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, DC, Wednesday night for the 13-hour plus flight to Afghanistan on a blacked-out Air Force One. At Andrews, Air Force One was board from inside a hanger at the base.
So the number one question raised has been, how was this done? Well first, much still remains classified, so we won’t go there. However, much of the tactics, techniques and procedures used and implemented goes back decades, and has over the course of time, threats and geo-political situations has evolved to ensure the safety and security of the President. It is never ending and takes into consideration technology, capabilities, lessons learned, and the proven expertise of phenomenal people.
Shortly after sunset on Wednesday, the President secretly boarded an undisclosed aircraft at an undisclosed airport on the east coast of Florida and flew to Joint Base Andrews. Air Force One, the plane President Trump took from Andrews to Florida on Tuesday evening, remained parked on the tarmac at Palm Beach International Airport as part of the subterfuge. While, the President was traveling, his StratComms team continued his routine tweeting to give the appearance he was still at Mar-a-Largo.
Meanwhile, several hours later at Andrews, a dozen reporters in the White House travel pool were told to meet on the top floor of a parking garage at 7:15 p.m. EST on Wednesday. They were not told where they were going. After which, for roughly 16 hours, the pool reporters, who chronicle nearly everything the President says or does, went silent. As for the Air Force One that landed Tuesday at Palm Beach International, it was nowhere to be seen Thursday afternoon. Hence, it too flew back to Andrews.
Earlier in the evening, vans drove the reporters from the top of the parking garage to a security checkpoint. They were required to surrender their cellphones and other electronic devices that emit signals. From there, they were taking to the large hangar where they boarded another Air Force One and awaited the President’s arrival. President Trump boarded Air Force One at 9:49 p.m. and the plane took off 20 minutes later with its interior lights off (blacked out) and shades drawn. Approximately, 11 hours into the 13-hour flight, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham divulged their destination: Bagram Air Base – the primary hub for U.S. air operations, located outside the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Air Force One approached and landed in the dark, with interior lights off and shades drawn. During the short visit, President Trump served and ate turkey with the troops and met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. After about three and a half hours, Air Force One was wheels-up for its return flight to the U.S.
When the news blackout was finally lifted at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, pool reporters in Afghanistan revealed some of the fascinating tale of the clandestine operations that enabled President Trump to sneak out of Mar-a-Lago and onto a military base in a country occupied by radical Islamists and of course Taliban fighters. As I noted, they reveal “some” of the operation of which they are aware based on time and what they could discern from being inside Air Force One.
There is strict reason for the secrecy of presidential travel for numerous reasons. I note a recent photo of a smiling Mar-a-Lago guest standing with the uniformed military aide who carries what is known as the “nuclear football,” a rarity — and unease-inducing – but a public reminder that just steps from the president at all times are the keys to end the world as we know it. Americans normally see very little of the massive apparatus that surrounds the modern presidency—and it’s easy to forget that much of it exists primarily to help ensure that the Commander in Chief, wherever he is in the world, is able to access the nation’s nuclear weapons and launch a retaliatory strike. In the end, it is tied to the secret effort of the U.S. Government’s secret plan to protect and save itself from hostile attack to include nuclear attack — a program that has been known as continuity of government, code-named Raven Rock. It of course, all starts with the protection, safety and security of the President, and critical key staff and components necessary to keep America safe.
First, there is the transportation, communications, and security infrastructure that drives the enormous cost, both in manpower and security, of moving a president around the country. As is always the case, we tend to always hear the critics who like to throughout number such as (from those who have said) that President Donald Trump’s weekend jaunts to Mar-a-Lago cost upward of $3 million each, but even that is just a rough estimate. The true costs of presidential travel are spread through so many offices, budgets, and secret classified funds that it’s unlikely that even the government has any real sense of the precise cost of White House travel. One GAO study in recent years suggested it was upward of $100 million a year, with much of that price tag reflecting the roughly $180,000-an-hour cost of flying the Boeing 747s. The two 747’s are official know as Air Force VC-25s with tail numbers; 28000 and 29000. They operate as “Air Force One,” the codename for any Air Force plane carrying the Commander-in-Chief. Understandably, it’s the cost of protecting and securing the President and those who serve him. The American people expect nothing less.
While, that famous blue-and-white Boeing 747 is just the most visible symbol of presidential travel. There’s much more that unfolds behind the scenes. A presidential trip involves hundreds of military and government personnel and often requires dozens of flights, including a back-up for Air Force One and all of the transport planes that move the motorcade, helicopters, and communications gear, secret service and the crews for all the equipment. And for shorter trips or smaller airports, there is an array of other planes can step in too: The Boeing 757s that normally fly the vice president as Air Force Two are used to shuttle Trump on the short hops to official White House and presidential events, campaign stops and his expected summer escape at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey or the winter White House in Mar-a-Largo, Florida.
Then there is a whole other fleet that the Air Force tries to keep out of sight. Ever since the 1960s, the United States has been building and equipping a special set of planes whose sole purpose has been to either evacuate the president in the event of a nuclear war and or national crisis, such as on September 11th, 2001 (9/11) which allow him to command a war from wherever he may be. Similarly, there is a need to move the president, in complete veiled secrecy to certain sensitive, dangerous areas such as Iraq or Afghanistan, as well saw on Thanksgiving Day.
Because of threats to this president, more than any president in history — for the most part, the direct fault of this country’s political-left, the Deep State, Nevers, Democrat politicians, and the mainstream media who entice and influence hate and hostile actions.
The aircraft, while not technically secret, are rarely mentioned – in fact, the Air Force does not even publicly acknowledge owning some of them — even though they’re always at the president’s beck and call, in which his air and security planners will call up for service as necessary.
From my own personal experience having served on the National Security Council staff and in the special operations and intelligence community – it is possible with the right ‘informational resources,’ as well as that which is accessible through declassified records, and a careful review of Air Force manuals and other historical documents — makes it possible to piece together a window into this secret fleet. Of course, than again, if you know and have the slightest idea what to look for, it’s not that easy. As it turns out, the biggest secrets surrounding the fleet isn’t the planes themselves—it’s where the planes are supposed to land after scooping up the president, dating back to the Kennedy administration in the early 1960’s.
The special presidential evacuation procedures begin with the primary Air Force One planes themselves: On 9/11, as President George W. Bush raced into the air following his school appearance in Sarasota, Florida, the crew activated a secret, classified capability aboard the 747 that speeds emergency launches, rocketing the plane into the sky at what seemed to passengers and observers like an impossibly steep pitch to minimize its exposure to any lurking surface-to-air missiles. Note, there are only two 747s in the world that can take- off like that — and they’re both called Air Force One.
But that is only part of the story of the secret fleet of Presidential support aircraft. Even larger presidential fleet is kept ready for special emergency use: The Air Force has four specially outfitted Boeing 747s, known as E-4B ‘Nightwatch’ planes that could serve as the “National Airborne Operations Center.” In operation since the 1970s, these airborne command posts were long considered the best chance for a Cold War president to survive a nuclear attack. Unlike the ceremonial and comfort-focused Air Force One, the E-4B airborne command posts are flying war-rooms—staffed by dozens of military analysts, strategists, and communication aides who would guide the president through the first days of a nuclear war. The planes also include special gear like a five-mile-long trailing wire antenna that would ensure that the president could remain in contact with the nuclear submarine fleet even after ground-based communications had been destroyed.
Through the final decades of the Cold War, an E-4B Nightwatch plane always stood on alert at Andrews Air Force Base, ready to whisk the president skyward with just 15 minutes’ warning. Even today, one of those four “Doomsday” planes, known to their crews as “Air Force One When It Counts,” regularly travels with or near the president, particularly on overseas trips. When the president is in the United States, an E-4B always remains on alert at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, its engines turning 24 hours a day, ready to launch and rendezvous with the president in the event of an emergency evacuation. Yet even those Doomsday planes represent just one corner of the emergency air fleet at the president’s fingertips, all of which is easy to hide inside the large-scale logistics of a presidential trip.
I will use as an example, a mission I was called on to support, in a nondisclosed capacity. A day ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to Germany in June 2009, a white unmarked Gulfstream III touched down at Stuttgart Airport. As with all presidential and vice presidential travel, preparations began months before take-off — U.S. military aircraft had been streaming into nearby Dresden, Germany for weeks, shuttling staff, communications gear, security teams, helicopters and armored vehicles ahead of the president visit.
The Air Force groups those missions into three main categories—codenamed PHOENIX BANNER, PHOENIX SILVER, and PHOENIX COPPER. A PHOENIX BANNER mission is a “special air mission” directly supporting the president; PHOENIX SILVER designates a flight supporting the vice president; and “PHOENIX COPPER” denotes flights flown in support of the Secret Service for VIPs other than the president and vice president. The basic procedures for such flights fill page after page of an Air Force manual, Air Force Instruction #11-289, and carefully delineate how seats should be configured on transport aircraft (one of the six seats must be reserved for Marine One security personnel if a helicopter is on board), how presidential limousines should be loaded (driven forward, not backed in), how weapons can be carried aboard (Secret Service agents are limited to three clips of ammo on their person and three more in their baggage), whether alcohol can be served to passengers (sometimes and to whom), and the specific tie-downs necessary for transporting various helicopters that support the president’s rotary-wing lift.
As part of those PHOENIX BANNER flights—even though most of the presidential motorcade for that Germany trip would be made up of local black Mercedes sedans—the Secret Service and the Air Force had flown to Dresden multiple heavily armored limousines, Secret Service Chevy Suburbans and Tahoes, and secure global communications vans for the president, staff and security teams (assault and sniper) to use, a normal configuration of vehicles officially known as the “secure package.” Helicopters from the Marine One squadron, HMX-1, had been flown over aboard transport planes (such as C-5 and C-17’s) to help the president travel around Germany. The same packages are used for all international and CONUS extended travel of the POTUS.
So at first glance, this is the standard package with some variations as expected. However, none of that was/is related at all to the $40 million Gulfstream that landed in Stuttgart — an hour’s flight away from Dresden, and a day ahead of Obama’s Germany visit. The white, unmarked jet blended in among the dozens of anonymous luxury executive jets that fill many major airports around the world – yet other than the fact it appeared as just another executive jet, it had no apparent business in Stuttgart, and its crew hung close to the plane. It was in Germany only for a day and then promptly took-off around the time the president departed Germany for the next leg of his trip, to France. As Air Force One went to Caen, the Gulfstream flew across the English Channel to the UK’s Mildenhall Air Force Base, where it waited in a hangar, just an hour’s flight away from Obama’s visit to the beaches of Normandy for the anniversary of D-Day on June 6th. Then the Gulfstream flew back to Andrews Air Force Base in the U.S. On no leg of the trip did the plane appear to have any purpose whatsoever. Only to someone, who was perhaps suspicious and felt the need to look up its tail number, 60403, would the secret be discovered, perhaps.
The Gulfstream was the Air Force’s plane 86-0403, one of three special mission, presidential aircraft long tasked with evacuating the president in an emergency and preserving the so-called National Command Authority(s), the term used to designate officials in the chain of command with the president with authority to launch nuclear weapons. Known as C-20Cs, the planes actually don’t really officially exist. But for years, they have gone nearly everywhere the president travels, paralleling presidential trips, serving as his chameleons, blending in anonymously at airports close by virtually every presidential visit outside of Washington, DC — but never at the same airport where Air Force One itself is landing. During one of Bush’s trips to Homestead Air Force Base in Miami in 2001, for example, a C-20C shadowed the trip, standing by at Patrick Air Force Base near Cape Canaveral.
The Air Force’s website doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the C-20Cs; neither did the listing of aircraft maintained by the 89th Airlift Wing, the Air Force unit at Joint Base Andrews that runs presidential missions. Air Force officials in the know of all the aircraft in the presidential fleet and those of the 89th Wing’s Executive fleet will tell you that, “Our position is that we do not have any aircraft called or designated as a C-20C.” One of the only references to the planes is on the government’s official master list of aircraft designations, which offers only the vaguest information on a similar Gulfstream jet known as a C-20B, explaining that that plane “operates on DC power” and offers “upgraded avionics used for the President and other high-ranking officials.” The C-20C it then describes only as a “modified C-20B with enhanced, secure communications. Used to support senior-level personnel and to provide backup for Air Force One.”
The planes in the C-20C fleet, known by their tail numbers as 50049, 50050, and 60403, were delivered to the Air Force in 1985, as the Reagan administration’s massive investment in “continuity of government” operations upgraded the government’s command-and-control systems. Like the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center planes, the C-20Cs were purposefully kept a little antiquated, with slightly older dial-and-gauge cockpits, rather than the more modern all-glass computer displays, to help protect the plane from the electromagnetic pulse that would accompany a nearby nuclear explosion. But the gear aboard is top-notch, the most capable with special satellite communications networks, and special classified defensive measures that would protect the plane during an attack.
The military and the Air Force also use deception, stealth and PSYOP in the movement of the presidential entourage in order to deceive foreign spies from at least initially trying to determine the mission, op-tempo and purpose of the presidential mission modus operandi. Over the years, as different missions have called for it, the planes’ livery has switched back-and-forth between a basic unmarked white and the standard distinctive blue-and-white marking made famous by industrial designer Raymond Loewy during JFK’s administration. Regardless of how they’re painted, though, wherever the president is, a C-20C plane is usually nearby. When the C-20C known as tail-number 50049 traveled to the Czech Republic in April 2010 to support Obama’s visit to Prague to sign the new START treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, it was an unmarked white, as it was the following March 21, 2011, when it traveled incognito to Santiago, Chile, to support the president’s Latin American swing. The following year, it shadowed Obama and Air Force One on a surprise trip to Afghanistan on May 1, 2012, to mark the first anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden. Its sister plane, 50050, was in Beijing for Obama’s November 2009 trip.
Likewise, under normal circumstances, even the presidential traveling party never even sees the C-20s, or know of their existence, but in special (and often high-risk) situations, presidents have actually traveled aboard the planes. In 2000, President Bill Clinton flew anonymously aboard an unmarked C-20 Gulfstream into Pakistan, while another aircraft followed as a decoy a few minutes behind on the same route using the call sign “Air Force One.” (Obama used another Air Force Gulfstream in the fleet, a standard Gulfstream V known in the military as a C-37, to take Michelle Obama out for a date night in 2009). So as is the case, yesterday from Mar-a-Largo where it was necessary to secretly smuggle President Trump back to Washington, and Joint Base Andrews, it was necessary to use a non-descript aircraft to carry out that special and secret president mission. Was it on the C-20C Gulfstream III, or the C-37 Gulfstream V, or perhaps another non-descript secret and covert small limited seat aircraft, only a few of us know.
Regarding the secret aircraft in the presidential fleet, the main purpose of the covert Gulfstreams, however—and the reason for their secrecy—is ensuring that the president maintains control of the nation’s nuclear weapons, and that he can be safely and securely evacuated in an emergency, or moved in a mission requiring the utmost secrecy, as was the case yesterday on Thanksgiving eve. The other reason is should their need to be an immediate back-up, particularly if the primary Air Force One is disabled, or attacked or if the president can’t make it back to the airport where Air Force One was located.
Further, in a national security situation, such as 9/11, while the E-4B Nightwatch planes are meant to be long-term command aircraft – 747s are not meant as a long-term solution. Instead, their goal is to get the president to one of the roughly dozen major ground command posts scattered around the country from which he could securely lead the nation into war. In fact, this plan was nearly activated on 9/11; after Bush took off from Florida, his staff’s original plan, before they realized the scope of the attacks that morning, had been to fly Air Force One to an airport near the capital—like Norfolk, Virginia—where he could be transferred to a small jet like the C-20 and brought either back to D.C., or to an emergency command post, at a military base or a designated secure underground facility.
The ability of the C-20s to land on a runway just half the length required for a 747 means that they’re agile enough to use at nearly any airport in the world — which could be very useful if you were suddenly going to be trying to hide a president somewhere in the United States. Specifically, if you’re trying to hide a president at Mount Weather in Virginia, one of the nation’s continuity of government underground facilities.
Since the 1950s, Mount Weather—a mountain about 45-minutes from downtown Washington—has served as the nuclear redoubt for the executive branch. An old weather-research station—hence its name—that once held conscientious objectors during World War II, the mountain was hollowed out during the Eisenhower administration to serve as the primary evacuation point for the Executive Branch, as the Cold War intensified and the advent of both bomber and ICBM delivered nuclear warheads became a reality.
So I mention the Gulfstream III C-20s because as part of the Reagan administration’s investment in “continuity of government” and command-and-control networks it became a critical part of secret covert movement of the Commander-in-Chief. Perhaps, as a result of this week’s secret movement of the president to Afghanistan, it is expected to be closely watched if possible of course, watched more closely. That said, unless should the Air Force select a more modernized replacement for the Gulfstream IIIs and Gulfstream Vs that had long served as the smaller staff and VIP ferries in the presidential fleet, there will be those watching, or at least trying to get inside the subterfuge loop.
As I wrote this article, Air Force One and the President were enroute back to the U.S. At about 7:00 am EST local Air Force One touched town at Palm Beach International Airport for the remainder of the weekend. Certainly, what I can talk about or mention about this secret mission, First Lady Melania Trump and son, Barron, have been staying at Mar-a-Lago since Tuesday. Another chapter in how this President strategically conducts both domestic and foreign policy, and the extent to which he will go to re-establish America’s position and prominence in the world is written. As always, every time a clandestine or covert mission is conducted, a little bit is revealed.
As it was in this case, the apparatus, capabilities, and systems available to the President have been showcased a bit — and his methodology, thinking, and his ability to use them appropriately, proportionately, and effectively, is by now, well known. Great effort Mr. President!