Written by Katie Rogers
As someone who fancies himself an aviation expert — he did once have his own airline, after all — President Donald Trump indulged his interest this week in a number of ways.
He ordered an F-35, a (very loud) $80 million fighter jet, to fly over the White House during the visit of the president of Poland. He stood on the South Lawn watching the landing of a pricey new VH-92 helicopter, which is referred to as Marine One when he is aboard. And in maybe his most satisfying moments of the week, he detailed his plans to give Air Force One — perhaps the most famous plane in the world — a new paint job.
“I like the concept of red, white and blue,” Trump said in an interview with “Fox & Friends” on Friday, describing the makeover he envisions for the plane, a specially fitted Boeing 747 with iconic cyan and white coloring. “The baby blue doesn’t fit with us.”
For other presidents, all of this would have amounted to a few too many aeronautical activities to stuff into a week packed with mounting aggression toward Iran, tariff threats and a head-of-state visit. Not for this one. In fact, it’s hard not to think that this sort of sky-toy-packed schedule is closer to what Trump, with his peculiar fixation with all things aviation, originally envisioned for his presidency.
Part of the draw for the president, according to Timothy O’Brien, author of the 2005 book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald,” is that he feels that these aircraft — the fighters, the helicopters, and the presidential jets — are his.
“He’s not obsessed with just any old airplanes or commercial aircraft,” O’Brien said. “He’s obsessed with private jets. He relishes the idea that they project power, wealth and exclusivity.”
He added, “They provide an obvious, tangible symbol, for him, of having arrived.”
From his perch in the White House, Trump frequently weighs in on matters ranging from engineering — earlier this year, he declared modern airplanes “too complex” to fly — to aircraft costs: “Cancel order!” Trump famously wrote during his presidential transition, balking at a $4 billion price tag for the two upgraded Boeing 747s that will be known as Air Force One when the president is onboard that are scheduled for delivery in 2024.
The deal he eventually struck with Boeing put the cost of the replacements at $3.9 billion. The Pentagon’s budget request this spring estimated the total cost for the program to be $4.6 billion, while an Air Force spokeswoman told the website Defense One it would be about $5.3 billion.
Aeronautical design appears to be the next frontier for the president. He came up with the paint plans, Trump said this week, on his own.
“Here’s your new Air Force One,” Trump told George Stephanopoulos of ABC in another interview, waving a design for the new planes. “I’m doing that for other presidents, not for me.”
The new navy, red and white design bears a resemblance to the Trump family jet. But in meetings with his aides, Trump has focused on a different reasoning for changing the colors.
According to one person who has been involved in such discussions, he has repeatedly stressed that the color scheme he wants is more in line with the United States’ national identity than the current light blue coloring.
Still, it is hard to argue that the current plane, one so famous it has its own movie by the same title, is not something uniquely American. The current plane’s design is closely associated with President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, who chose the colors in consultation with famed designer Raymond Loewy.
The Kennedys both disliked the look of the plane under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, changing the paint scheme from orange to a lighter blue. They took care with the design because they wanted to present a less militaristic image to the rest of the world.
In their re-imagining, “The United States of America” was emblazoned on the side of the plane, the font a close match to one used in the printing of the US Constitution. The plane’s new look was unveiled in 1962.
Kenneth Walsh, a journalist who has written a book on Air Force One, said that Americans had become so attached to the Kennedy-era makeover that the design had held for decades.
“As time has gone on it has become probably the most identifiable aircraft across in the world,” Walsh said, “immediately raising the image of the strength of American technology, the reach of the American presidency, and the image of the individual president who is aboard.”
Trump is not the only commander-in-chief enamoured with his famous plane, which is equipped with a medical suite, sleeping quarters and a kitchen that can serve 100 meals at once. In 2015, President Barack Obama said that being able to ride Air Force One was the “No. 1” perk of being president.
After President George W. Bush left office, he said that among the things he missed about being president was “the Air Force’s accommodating me with a shower on the airplane that flew me around.”
For his part, Trump has made Air Force One a visual symbol not just for the presidency but for him. At his outdoor campaign rallies and events, the president enjoys having the plane parked behind him, and DJs at the events often make sure the theme song from the plane’s namesake movie is playing as he lands.
In May, the president also ran afoul of ethics watchdogs for filming a political video disparaging New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, aboard the aircraft.
On Friday, Trump said it was time for a change before suggesting that his own wife, Melania, was just as iconic as Jacqueline Kennedy.
“People get used to something,” Trump said, “and it was Jackie O.,” referring to Onassis, the last name Kennedy took during her second marriage. “And that’s good,” Trump continued, “but we have our own Jackie O. today. It’s called Melania. We’ll call it Melania T.”
The president’s plan to drastically change the look of the plane has already encountered pushback. On Wednesday, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent unnecessary spending on paint changes.
Walsh said that the strong reaction that greeted the descriptions of Trump’s plans was closely tied to how people viewed his presidency as a disrupting force: “Donald Trump has a way of wanting to change things because he can,” Walsh added. “It’s branding.”