The flight manual for the new US Air Force One cost $84 million

Apr 17, 2020

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Aeroplanes, like cars, have user manuals. That includes the Boeing VC-25B, also known as the future Air Force One. That is not news.

What is unusual is that the manuals for the future U.S. presidential jet are going to cost U.S. taxpayers $84 million. You read that right.

The Drive reported that Boeing was just awarded an $84 million by the U.S. Air Force to “modify commercial manuals, update with VC-25B-specific information and deliver integrated manuals for the VC-25B system.” That’s a slightly convoluted way of saying that Boeing and its subcontrators will take the existing manuals for the Boeing 747-8, and adapt them for its military version, the VC-25B.

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A report from the Pentagon last year pegged the total cost of the VC-25B program at $5.2 billion for the two aircraft, including all the associated expenses. It’s not clear whether that includes those manuals. The figures are staggering, especially compared with the price of a 747-8 off the Boeing assembly line: according to the company’s list prices, two 747-8s would cost $836.8 million And the VC-25Bs weren’t even bought new: they were built for a Russian airline that went bankrupt, never delivered, and stored in the desert until the USAF picked them up to make into the new presidential transport.

The cost had been announced as $3.9 billion in 2018, but expenditures for all military programmes have a tendency to balloon. These aren’t off-the-shelf 747s, either. Just like the current two Air Force Ones, 30-year old aeroplanes derived from an earlier model of the Boeing double-decker and called VC-25A, they must be modified extensively before they are delivered in 2024.

A Boeing 747-8 departs from the Tegel airport in Berlin, Germany, 8 February 2018. Lufthansa launches the redesign of their crane logo on the occasion of their 100th anniversary. Photo: Britta Pedersen/dpa (Photo by Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images)
A Boeing 747-8 departs from the Tegel airport in Berlin, Germany, 8 February 2018. (Photo by Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The VC-25Bs are undergoing serious modifications and will be outfitted with the most advanced defence countermeasures, among other things, making them unique compared to their commercial cousins — hence, the need for those new manuals. Government Executive said, “The technical manuals will include more than 100,000 pages with the specifications for flying the plane as well as fixing it, according to people familiar with the high-profile project”. (That’s $840 a page.) According to the contract notice, the manuals are expected to be complete by 15 January 2025.

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Another factor that makes these manuals so pricey is the fact that some parts will be secret, so they have to be developed and printed under secure conditions. Military-system documentation tends to run on the pricier end. For instance, The Drive reminded us that the structural repair manuals for the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, a maritime-patrol jet derived from the 737,  cost the Navy $30 million back in 2014.

Boeing has a PDF version online of one of the 747-8 manuals. At 126 pages, it’s a slightly more manageable read than the 100,000-page behemoth the Air Force will have to deal with — and unlike the VC-25B’s manuals, it’s free to download.

Additional reporting by Liz Hund.

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