Panetta in the Pacific: E-4B Déjà Vu

A U.S. Air Force E-4B on the ramp at Andrews Air Force Base on May 30, 2012. (Marcus Weisgerber/Staff)


ABOARD A U.S. AIR FORCE AIRCRAFT — Walking up the fold-down stairs into the belly of the E-4B, a mammoth airplane, I felt a sense of déjà vu.

I’ve never flown on one, in fact it’s only the third time I’ve seen one.

A solid blue strip stretches along the white plane’s window line from nose to tail and the words “United States of America” are etched on each side.

But none of these features were visible the last time I saw an E-4B. That aircraft didn’t even have landing gear.

The cabin was completely gutted, the avionics in the cockpit gone, as were the engines. Scaffolding surrounding the exterior of this behemoth held it suspended off the ground. The wing flaps were also missing.

Turns out aircraft 73-1677 and I have some history. I saw her on a hot and steamy summer day in late June 2010.

At the time, she was parked inside Wichita, Kan., hanger where Boeing overhauls the Air Force’s four E-4Bs on a rotational basis. I was there to write about the modification work at the facility.

Now, this quad-engine jet back on active duty and today she flew U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other Pentagon officials on the first leg of a nine-day trip to the Pacific.

I’m tagging along as part of the traveling press contingent that will document Panetta’s journey to the region, which includes stops in Hawaii, Singapore, Vietnam and India.

About an hour out from Hickam Air Force Base, our first stop, I can’t help but recall standing in the press cabin of this E-4B back in 2010, exposed wires hanging from the wall and a large, wooden table covered in plastic wrap sitting in the middle of the room.

A U.S. Air Force E-4B on the ramp at Hickam Air Force Base on May 30, 2012. (Marcus Weisgerber/Staff)

In the same space of the finished version of the jet, two flat-screen televisions, Bose speakers and video conference equipment are installed on the front wall. Four digital clocks display the time in Washington, the time at our destination, Zulu time and the time until we land.

There are only three rows of seats, six across, separated by an aisle. I’m in row three on the left side in a middle seat.

Defense officials can run the entire U.S. military from the E-4B, also known as the National Airborne Operations Center. It’s for that reason the highly modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet is called the “Doomsday Plane,” a reference to the Stanley Kubrick classic film Dr. Strangelove.

The aircraft is far from new, built in the 1970s.

During our 10-hour flight from Washington to Hawaii, we aerial refueled off the coast of California.

Panetta stopped by the press cabin for some informal chit chat before the flight.

In Hawaii, the defense secretary has private meetings scheduled with Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of Pacific Command and others. He will also talk to troops based there.

I’ll keep you up to date on the latest.

Marcus Weisgerber
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Marcus Weisgerber

Senior Pentagon Correspondent at Defense News
I write about broad-ranging policy, acquisition and budget issues affecting the US military.
Marcus Weisgerber
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