The following is expanded and adapted from Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die (Simon & Schuster, 2017).
The photo this winter of a smiling Mar-a-Lago guest with the uniformed military aide who carries the “nuclear football” was a rare—and unease-inducing—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.
That communications and security infrastructure drives the enormous cost of moving a president around the country. Critics 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 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 that normally operate as “Air Force One,” the codename for any Air Force plane carrying the commander in chief.
But 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 backup for Air Force One and transport planes that move the motorcade, helicopters and communications gear. And for shorter trips or smaller airports, other planes can step in too: The Boeing 757s that normally fly the vice president as Air Force Two might be used this summer to shuttle Trump on the short hop to his expected summer escape at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
And then there’s 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 evacuate the president in the event of a nuclear war and allow him to command a war from wherever he may be.
The airplanes, while not technically secret, are rarely mentioned—the Air Force does not even publicly acknowledge owning some of them—even though they’re always at the president’s beck and call. Through interviews, declassified records and a careful review of Air Force manuals and other historical documents, though, it’s possible to piece together a window into this secret fleet. As it turns out, the biggest secret surrounding the fleet isn’t the planes themselves—it’s where the planes are supposed to land after scooping up the president, an answer that lies in a key friendship of first lady Jackie Kennedy.