Foreign Dispatch: AF1 Observations

By FOX News Radio White House Correspondent, Mike Majchrowitz

I am writing this on board Air Force One as it flies back from Bali, Indonesia.  I have been asked to write a story about what it’s like to ride on the world’s most famous passenger plane.  I have been a passenger on the President’s plane several times before and with this 22 hour flight, I feel uniquely qualified.  (Not to mention I have plenty of time to kill)

First, it’s an incredible honor to have the chance to fly on this grand plane.  Not really something I ever really thought I would be able to do before Fox put me on the White House beat.  Our companies pay our way (no free rides for the media) and so it’s also quite a privilege that Fox would choose me to occupy that seat.

Perhaps the biggest difference about Air Force one (or AF1 as we shorthand it) is that it is a flying office.  Unlike a typical commercial jet with an open cabin, this plane is subdivided into rooms.  The President is up front with a bedroom, bathroom (with shower), office, and conference room.  In the middle is a seating area for dignitaries where they sit facing each other with tables.  And then there are four seating compartments in the rear for staff, Secret Service and finally one compartment for the media.  Finally there is the galley.

There are 14 big leather captain chairs where we sit, comfortable for short and medium flights; but as they don’t convert to beds, it’s a little less comfortable on the overnight hauls.  Mercifully, we have our own bathroom.  There are two seats outfitted with desks.  This plane dates back to the days before laptops and as I understand there were typewriters once for pounding out dispatches.

The reporters who fly on AF1 are called pool reporters, or poolers.  One representative from each of the branches of major media serves as reporter for all the other similar news outlets (since only a handful of reporters can fly on AF1 at any given time).  Each news division takes turns staffing the “pool seat.”  It’s our job to stay close to the President and send back any information, recorded sound, pictures, video and/or observations we collect for everyone else to use.  We run around with Blackberries, iPhones, and open laptops, powered up and ready to send whatever we might collect.

Being on AF1 usually means we’re either starting a pool shift or ending one (occasionally there are multiple stops). It’s often a much-needed chance to relax. Following the President is demanding work; often requiring us to run after him carrying heavy gear so that we can be in place before he is and not miss the start of his appearance.

In Rio once, we had to run to the top of the base of the Christ the Redeemer statue (260 steps) to beat the President who was taking the elevator.  After a day like that, a big AF1 seat can be a welcome chance to unwind.

The service on AF1 is top notch – the kind of thing that is only a memory on commercial flights these days.  We are fed coming and going, not gourmet food, but good solid American style dishes served on china with the Presidential seal and proper silverware.  It is actually prepared while we are in flight.  I always ask for the lemonade; great stuff.  The staff treat you like royalty.

Often we are given briefings on AF1, called “gaggles.”  They’re generally an informal, off camera exchange of information from Press Secretary Jay Carney or other administration officials.  On this flight we had the rare honor that President Obama popped in and chatted with us, informally and off the record, for about half an hour.  It was so unexpected that one of my colleagues let out a startled yelp when they turned around and saw him standing there.  It was an amazing exchange for we pool reporters since we don’t often have the chance to interact with the President directly, particularly in a more social context.  Of course it’s killing me that I can’t tell you what he said, but it was valuable insight that I think will make me a more informed reporter.

So, the bottom line is that being on AF1 is an honor, but it comes with a lot of work.  It’s a chance to not just witness, but be a part of history on the fly.  And you get a seat on the coolest passenger jet in history.  The only downside: no frequent flier miles.

Listen HERE to Mike Majchrowitz reporting on the President’s trip to Darwin, Australia:

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Listen HERE to natural sound of AF1 leaving Darwin, Australia:

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