Air Force One and Markings of a Jet

Q: I’m convinced there is no way a crisscrossing pilot would have been able to Air Force One. It doesn’t seem likely that transatlantic flights should come close enough to make out the markings on the side of the jet!

In fact it’s often very easy for pilots to visually identify one another’s make and markings. Over the Atlantic, minimums require only a thousand feet of vertical separation (altitude). Horizontally it’s much more stringent, but airplanes can pass above and below one another along identical tracks (imagine upper/lower decks of a bridge), with only a thousand feet between. In my own experiences I’ve called out the liveries nearby flights many times. Those red cowls of Virgin Atlantic and the green-topped fuselage of Aer Lingus make for snappy recognition. Don’t underestimate what a 747, with 230-foot flanks and a 60-foot tail, looks like against empty sky, even at a distance.

The only problem here is the level of daylight, the precise specs of which are unknown and likely to remain that way. In true predawn darkness identification would have been more or less impossible. (Planes sometimes display “logo lights” illuminating their liveries, though we’ll assume Air Force One’s, if equipped, would’ve been switched off).

That autumn day in 1992, it was Bush’s father safely ensconced in Air Force One as it roared past me above Revere Beach. Does anyone remember when Bush the elder, at a Mediterranean summit in 1990, hot-dogged off the coast of Malta in a speedboat, and how the gesture made news for days afterward? Junior has already outdistanced dad with a tailhook carrier landing and a surreptitious slip into a war zone.

Of course, we’ve already forgotten that Tony Blair made it to Iraq last May, fresh on the heels of the invasion by British and US forces. Even without the nourishment of a turkey dinner, Blair managed to tour a school, a police station, and a military compound.


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.