The Next Air Force One: What’s The Latest?

Procuring an aircraft (or set of aircraft) for use by a Head of State is no easy task. Nor should it be- especially when it comes to selecting transport for the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world. With that being said, the upcoming replacement for the US Presidential aircraft has had more than its fair share of ups and downs, with delays and lawsuits plaguing the program’s progress. So what is the latest in this ongoing saga?

The new US Presidential aircraft were initially built as Boeing 747-8i jets. Meant to go to a commercial airline customer, the pair of aircraft are undergoing modification at the moment. Photo: Getty Images

A delayed program

For quite some time, it was expected that the first modified Boeing 747-8 would arrive sometime in 2024. Interestingly, The Drive reported in June 2019 that the Trump Administration was hoping to expedite the first delivery, with December 2023 being the target. Of course, as time has passed, even the original 2024 target has started to become increasingly questionable, with speculation that the first delivery won’t happen until 2025.

This is because Boeing’s primary contractor performing the modification work on the jumbo jets was dropped early last year. In April 2021, Boeing sued contractor GDC Technics, for delays and missed deadlines, which it said “resulted in millions of dollars in damages to Boeing and threaten to jeopardize work that is of critical importance to the (US Air Force) and the president of the United States.” 

According to a whistleblower, these delays may have resulted from conflicts of interest between GDC’s owners and other projects- an issue that will be discussed in the next section of this article.

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The 747-8s being modified come from an order placed by now-defunct Russian airline Transaero. The carrier never took delivery of the jets. Photo: Kudak via Wikimedia Commons 

GDC then countersued Boeing, claiming that the company was making them a scapegoat for their own failures. GDC Technics was seeking US$20 million in damages. However, in a third twist, the Texas-based firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Frequently referred to as a “reorganization” bankruptcy, the US Court states that the debtor usually remains “in possession” and may continue to operate its business, and may, with court approval, borrow new money.

Later in the year, the two companies reached a compromise, with both firms agreeing to dismiss their respective litigation. While the two companies may work together on future projects, the Air Force One project is firmly off the table. In early October 2021, GDC announced that it had completed its bankruptcy restructuring.

GDC fallout

Boeing’s official work with GDC had ceased by mid-2021, but that didn’t mean an end to the drama surrounding the contractor and its involvement with the project. In a major report produced by San Antonio Express News, a whistleblower alleged that Boeing had actually outsourced its Air Force One modification work to a company owned by a foreign government. Indeed, allegations go on to note that at least one Saudi national was given top-secret Air Force One specifications, a clear issue of national security. The information was brought forth during GDC’s bankruptcy case.

GDC Technics was 80% owned by the Saudi Arabian government, with the whistleblower alleging that the Saudi government diverted funds earmarked for the US VC-25B projects to complete work on two Boeing 787-8 aircraft belonging to the Saudi Finance Ministry. This took place before it “forfeited and abandoned all interests in GDC” in 2019.

A quid pro quo arrangement between Boeing and the Saudi Arabian government is alleged by whistleblower Ahmed Bashir, who was the CEO of now-defunct Emerald Aerospace, a firm that performed aircraft modification work in Kansas.

“In other words, Boeing was doling out subcontracts on major US defense projects to GDC at the same time Boeing was soliciting valuable contracts from GDC’s beneficial owner — the Saudi Arabian government,” -Ahmed Bashir via San Antonio Express News

The whistleblower initially first filed an “ethics complaint” with Boeing in 2018. The year after, a whistleblower lawsuit was filed in April 2019 in federal court in Washington State. It’s noted that these types of lawsuits – also known as Qui tam lawsuits – are sealed and confidential, allowing the federal government to conduct an investigation without the defendants’ knowledge. The US government eventually decided not to join Bashir’s lawsuit but reserved the right to intervene at a later time.

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GDC Technics, at one point been owned by a foreign company. Photo: Boeing

But according to his lawyer, Bashir has since amended his lawsuit, which, as of November 2021, was in the hands of Justice Department attorneys to evaluate the merits of government intervention.

GDC noted that Bashir’s allegations “amount to nothing more than sour grapes,” as his company lost out on the Air Force One project. Meanwhile, Boeing is awaiting the filing of an amended lawsuit in order to file an official response. Spokespersons for both Boeing and the Air Force declined to comment.

Whatever the situation may be, GDC’s work in modifying the 747s has long ended, with Boeing continuing to (hopefully) make progress on the jets- albeit behind a veil of secrecy.

No new program partners made public

With the main contractor for the VC-25Bs out, who has Boeing tasked to take over? As reported by Defense One, Lt. Gen. Duke Richardson, the Air Force military deputy for acquisition, commented on the program’s progress in May 2021 saying,

“We’re going to obviously have to look at the schedule [and] we have to look at it pragmatically. Boeing is working hard, they’ve got another supplier identified, we’re going to transfer as much of the work on the interiors as possible.”

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GDC Technics had also been tasked to modify a Boeing 777 for India’s Head of State, which it completed in September. Photo: GDC Technics

Indeed, the planemaker had hoped to engage new suppliers or take the work in-house, telling Simple Flying at the end of April:

Boeing is working to mitigate any impact to these programs as well as to any of the sub-tier suppliers. We have been working with several small businesses that are key sub-tier suppliers to GDC Technics, and are engaging with all 52 small business sub tiers that contribute to these Boeing programs, in the immediate future.

Boeing added that it was coordinating closely with its customers and that GDC Technics’ work statement would be moved to “new qualified suppliers and/or performed in-house by Boeing.”

Most details remain confidential

Given issues of national security, it’s not surprising that details regarding the 747-8 modification work remain confidential. After all, these certainly aren’t agreements that sub-contractors would be allowed to issue press releases on.

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The Trump administration put forth a new livery for the future Air Force One. Photo: Boeing

As a result, the public is mostly left in the dark regarding the progress of this project. However, it seems more and more likely that a first delivery won’t take place until 2025. It wouldn’t be surprising if the global health crisis and ongoing global supply chain issues had an impact on the timeline, especially since it has already affected businesses worldwide.

For anyone wondering, there still hasn’t been any news on whether former President Trump’s suggested paint scheme will be kept, or if the jets will instead retain the same livery as their predecessors.

2024, 2025, or later? When do you think these jets will actually be operational? Let us know by leaving a comment.

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