Here’s an inside look at the U.S. Air Force ‘doomsday plane’ — which can endure the aftermath of a nuke blast
Affectionately known as the “doomsday plane,” the modified Boeing 747 is used to transport the secretary of Defense and is born and bred for battle. It stands nearly six stories tall, is equipped with four colossal engines, and is capable of enduring the immediate aftermath of a nuclear detonation.
If there ever were a nuclear war and all US military ground communication was destroyed, the US Air Force keeps an E-4B “Nightwatch,” nicknamed the “doomsday plane,” on alert 24/7. The $223 million militarized Boeing 747 is designed to survive a nuclear blast and would become the command and control center for the US military’s most senior officials, including the US President, Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Originally designed in 1973, the E-4 series planes were thought to be the best way a president during the Cold War might survive a nuclear explosion. And since their inception, one of the doomsday planes has stood on alert 24/7.
And while the majority of the E-4B’s capabilities are classified, we do know a few things. The plane has three decks and can hold a crew of up to 112 people. With four massive engines, the E-4B can fly for 12 hours straight without refueling, though with aerial refueling capabilities it could theoretically fly for several days.
It costs nearly $160,000 per hour to fly the E-4B, making it the most expensive airplane the Air Force operates. And it’s built to survive a nuclear blast. To prevent radiation, the windows have a wired mesh, similar to what you’d see on the window of a microwave. Equipment and wiring on board are hardened to survive an electromagnetic pulse. There are also thermal and nuclear shielding and direct-fire countermeasures.
Aboard the plane, space is broken down to optimize war coordination. At the front of the plane, executive quarters house the senior military officials. The upper rest has 18 bunks available for the Air Force crew. They work 24-hour, seven-day shifts and sleep on board. Beneath that is the secure conference room, where the joint chiefs, president, and secretary of defense can give war orders. The briefing room is where officials can update the traveling press, or battle staff, on strategy and coordination efforts.
In the center of the plane, officers from every branch of the military will hammer out a strategy in the event of a crisis. This base is known as the battle-staff room. And all outside communication happens at the back of the aircraft from the communication and technical control room. From here, operators can communicate with virtually anyone in the world, in any situation.
“It’s like a backup Pentagon,” a U.S. Air Force crew member told CNBC aboard one of the aircraft. “There’s always one plane on alert and ready to go 24 hours, seven days a week.”
An aircrew aboard the plane said that the aircraft would clock a total of 22,538 nautical miles with the help of three aerial refuelings and six tankers during the eight-day trip.
“It’s great, but they keep giving me more work,” Shanahan joked when asked about working and traveling on the E-4B. “The work never stops,” he added, noting that he has a pulse on U.S. military operations across the globe while aboard the aircraft.
“Think of it as this, the plane is basically a flying command center,” a Pentagon spokesman said aboard the aircraft. The spokesman added that the secretary has access to both unclassified and the highest form of classified communication systems on the plane. “So, he’s never out of the loop,” another Pentagon spokesman added.