By 1985, the pair of Boeing 707-based VC-137s used as the Presidential aircraft had been in service for 23 and 13 years respectively, and the USAF began searching for an eventual replacement. The Request for Proposal issued stated that the aircraft to be selected should have at least three engines and an unrefueled range of at least 6,000 miles (9,700 km). Both Boeing with its 747 and McDonnell Douglas with the DC-10 were in competition to be selected, with the Boeing entry the eventual winner. The fabrication of the current 747s began during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989). Reagan ordered two identical Boeing 747-200Bs to replace the Boeing 707s that he used for transport.
The VC-25s were completed in 1986 and first flew in 1987. The interior designs were created by First Lady Nancy Reagan, who used designs reminiscent of the American Southwest. Problems with interior wiring for communication systems delayed delivery of the two aircraft until 1990, during the administration of George H.W. Bush.
The VC-25 is not compliant with Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) standards; the Air Force is upgrading both airplanes. The Air Force reported that the operating cost for each VC-25A is $210,877 per hour.
While the VC-25 has two main decks and a cargo area, like a regular Boeing 747, its 4,000 square feet (370 m²) of floor space has been reconfigured for presidential duties. Its lowest level is mostly cargo space, carrying luggage and the onboard food supply.
The main passenger area is on the second floor or main deck. There are three entrances on board, two on the lower and one on the main deck. Typically the president boards and deplanes from the front, main deck entrance via an airstair, while journalists and other passengers enter at the lower rear door. Facilities for the press and other passengers are configured like an ordinary airliner's first-class cabin.
"The White House"
The front of the aircraft is referred to as the "White House" of the aircraft. The president's executive suite includes sleeping quarters with two couches that can be converted into beds, lavatory and shower, vanity, double sink, and a private office, or the president's "Oval Office aboard Air Force One". If necessary, the president can address the nation from the office. This capability was added after the September 11 attacks, during which the aircraft had to land at Barksdale Air Force Base in order for President George W. Bush to address the nation. These offices, including the president's suite, are mostly located on the starboard (right) side, and a long corridor runs along the port (left) side. There is an area along the corridor for two Secret Service agents. The aircraft also contains a conference room, originally designed as a situation room but now used for meeting with staff while traveling. This room includes a 50-inch plasma screen television which can be used for teleconferencing. The aircraft has fully equipped office areas with telecommunication systems (including 87 telephones and 19 televisions).
On board the VC-25 is a medical annex, which includes a fold-out operating table, emergency medical supplies, and a well-stocked pharmacy; George W. Bush had a treadmill added to Air Force One during his term in office. Every flight is staffed by a doctor and nurse. The aircraft is self-sufficient, such as carrying all the food it will need. Meals are prepared in two galleys, which together are equipped to feed up to 100 people at a time. The President gets his own menu. An area where guests sit is near the center of the aircraft, outside the "White House".
There are separate quarters for guests, senior staff, Secret Service and security personnel, and the news media located in the aft area of the main deck. Protocol states that one may wander aft of wherever one's assigned seat is, but not forward. Communications equipment and the cockpit are on the upper deck. There are also secure and non-secure voice, fax and data communications facilities. While the aircraft's luggage capacity is adequate to carry the belongings of the passengers, the logistics train of the President means that the aircraft must fly preceded by an aerial convoy of several cargo transports, which carry the helicopters, motorcade vehicles, and other equipment required by the presidential entourage.
The VC-25 is capable of flying 7,800 miles (12,600 km)—roughly one-third the distance around the world—without refueling. It can be refuelled during flight from a tanker aircraft. The VC-25A can accommodate more than 70 passengers. Each VC-25A cost approximately US$325 million. When a VC-25 taxis to an airport's ramp for events, it stops with the port side of the aircraft facing gathered onlookers.