False Flight Plans

Q: Ostensibly to ensure security, Air Force One filed a flight plan identifying itself as Gulfstream V. What are the legal ramifications of filing a false flight plan?

It’s probably a violation of some ICAO regulation, but flight plans are extremely complicated — altitudes, routings, and even the destination can be changed enroute — and opening this can of conspiratorial worms is destined for trouble. And, after all, while I mean no offense to all you civic minded i-dotters and t-crossers out there, this was the President of the United States on, like it or not, a relatively dangerous trip. If that mandates the tweak of a flight plan or two, I don’t see any problem so long as nobody is put in danger and no international protocol is shattered.

Q: But wouldn’t it be dangerous for other aircraft if the controllers are provisioning for a much smaller plane, and a 747 shows up instead?

Not really. The Gulfstream V and the 747 travel at about the same heights and speeds, even if the latter is about nine times the size and weight. The biggest worry would be separation between the 747 and nearby aircraft for wake avoidance, chiefly applicable at lower altitudes and in more congested airspace, such as when climbing after takeoff or maneuvering for landing. This would not have been a prime concern for the approach into Baghdad.

If the Gulfstream V (or, to most pilots, a “G-Five”) reference seems entirely mysterious, know that the President does not always travel in his signature 747, but occasionally flies in a much smaller, top-of-the-line brand of executive jet known as, yes, a Gulfstream. There are Gulfstream IIIs, IVs, and Vs all assigned to Andrews AFB.

Regardless of which he’s riding on, its radio call-sign is “Air Force One.” Officially, Air Force One refers only to call-sign designation and is not the title of any aircraft itself. If, as during training, test flying or repositioning, our illustrious head of state is not aboard, a completely different identifier is used over the radio.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.