ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE — My first thought walking onto Air Force One last week was about the incredible opportunity of traveling with the leader of the free world, the gravity and awesome power of the presidency.
My second thought was to grab anything and everything that wasn’t nailed down. I needed souvenirs. Friends, relatives, bosses — they were all going to want a piece of this.
Cocktail napkins with the presidential seal? Definitely grab those.
A gold-trimmed “Air Force One” menu showing the inflight meal? Yeah, that’s coming with me.
Even the complimentary toothbrushes in the bathroom? They don’t actually have anything presidential stamped on them, but sure, what the heck, stuff a couple in the coat pocket.
When President Barack Obama announced he was coming to Omaha, I went to work on catching a ride with him.
It’s unusual for a newspaper the size of The Omaha World-Herald to snag such a high-profile seat, but not unprecedented. Salt Lake Tribune Bureau Chief Thomas Burr did it on Obama’s trip to Utah last year, and I was determined to give it a shot.
Fortunately, the seat usually reserved for a radio reporter was available and, after jumping through a few hoops, I had a one-way ticket to Omaha.
It’s important to point out that the press don’t fly for free on Air Force One. We’re billed the rough equivalent of a regular plane ticket. I haven’t received the invoice yet, but the cost to The World-Herald for last week’s flight should be between $300 and $400.
The name “Air Force One” is actually the call sign for any Air Force plane carrying the president.
For the Omaha trip, we were on his signature plane, a specially configured Boeing 747 with the blue-and-white color scheme and “United States of America” proudly emblazoned along the side.
And I will say that Air Force One is one sweet ride.
Forget the flying sardine cans of regular air travel. The seats on this plane would look at home as a leather armchair in your living room. The legroom stretches on forever. Nobody bugs you to turn off your mobile devices or buckle your seat belt.
The day started a little after 10 a.m. Wednesday when my fiancée dropped me off in the parking lot of Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., and I joined the rest of the traveling press corps on a shuttle bus to the terminal.
As one might imagine, security is more intense than at Eppley Airfield.
In addition to the familiar X-ray machine and metal detector routine, there’s another layer of Secret Service scrutiny. Each passenger gets some individual attention with a handheld metal detector while bomb-sniffing dogs check out the luggage.
Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., also caught a ride with Obama and was hanging next door in the airport’s VIP lounge, where he bumped into King Abdullah of Jordan, who was waiting to fly home after a visit to Washington.
The president was running late, so we journalists just cooled our heels in the very ordinary person lounge.
I ducked into the lounge restroom and found when I emerged that I had to go through another round with the handheld metal detector. As I said, security is a little more intense on this flight.
Eventually, we were able to go out and hop on the plane, still waiting for the president. Ashford wandered back to the press cabin to chat with reporters about what an honor it was to accompany Obama on the trip.
“It doesn’t get any better than that because we’re all so proud of what we’ve done in Nebraska,” Ashford said, then couldn’t help but joke: “Even though they only won six games.”
Word came over the loudspeaker that Obama was on his way, so the press went back to the tarmac and took up positions. I used the opportunity to grab a couple selfies with the plane.
Marine One set down nearby, and the president bounded out. He headed into the terminal for a quick hello with Abdullah, then back outside, up the front stairs into the plane. The press corps was hustled up the back stairs into the press cabin, and we were wheels up for Omaha by 12:50 p.m.
Anticipating a rookie passenger’s kleptomania, one member of the crew handed me a “goodie bag” with a few Air Force One matchbooks and little boxes of M&Ms with the presidential seal.
First-timers on Air Force One also are supposed to get a certificate, but they were all out and instead offered to mail me one.
The 14-seat press cabin has plenty of room to spread out. Three digital clocks on the wall note the time for “Washington,” “local” and “destination.” A couple of big TV screens were showing the 2006 Will Farrell movie “Stranger than Fiction” during the flight.
The bathroom is a pretty typical aircraft bathroom — but there is a presidential seal on the hand-soap holder. (Unfortunately, it was attached to the wall.)
I had some past experience flying on high-profile planes. When former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel was defense secretary, for example, I was able to accompany him on a few of his international trips. We couldn’t go everywhere on his plane, but there was more freedom of movement. Air Force One was more buttoned up. No pictures allowed on the plane, for example. And I was told I should not go forward to the rest of the plane under any circumstances. Don’t want to upset the Secret Service.
So with no guided tour, I can’t swear to what the rest of the aircraft looks like. But according to the White House, it has 4,000 square feet of floor space on three levels, including a large presidential suite with an office, private lavatory and conference room.
It has a medical suite that can function as an operating room, and there’s always a doctor on board. The two galleys on the plane can serve up 100 meals at a time.
And that means real food, not tiny bags of mini pretzels. Lunch was a hearty potato soup served in a bread bowl, topped with bacon, cheddar cheese and green onions, with a garden salad and gourmet cookies.
The meals are served on dishes that bear the presidential seal, and passengers get their own little salt and pepper shakers. The food smelled delicious. Unfortunately, I can’t give a first-hand assessment of how it tasted.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest came back to do a “gaggle” with reporters ahead of the Omaha trip. He talked about the American sailors who had been detained by Iran, the president’s State of the Union address the night before and, of course, Donald Trump. He also previewed the president’s visit to Omaha and the speech at UNO, touting the administration’s policies.
I started typing away at my keyboard so I could send those comments to my editor the moment that we landed (no Internet on the plane for reporters).
And I was so focused on that work I never actually got around to eating. Oh well.
I had politely pushed Josh before the trip for a few minutes with Obama during the flight. At one point, I jokingly asked whether the chance of an interview was zero percent or .1 percent.
He said .1 percent sounded about right.
“So you’re telling me there’s a chance,” I muttered.
Alas, that presidential interview did not come to pass. And while Obama sometimes comes back to the press cabin for off-the-record chats, he didn’t do so on the flight to Omaha.
I was closer to him at the White House Christmas party for the news media, where you can actually get a photo with the president.
When I solicited Air Force One advice from veteran White House reporters, they had all harped on one caution: Don’t do anything the photographers tell you to do.
They’re pranksters who love to haze the rookies — telling first-timers that they have to check their bags or need to pay to use the plane’s bathroom.
The photographers on our trip were merciful to me, however. Associated Press Photographer Carolyn Kaster even took some shots of me outside the plane.
It was ultimately a quick flight — we were on the ground at Offutt Air Force Base after just two hours and 20 minutes. We scrambled out the back exit to see the president come out with Ashford to shake hands with the welcoming party, led by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Soon the motorcade was rolling off the base and down familiar roads.
The next day, I traveled back to Washington on Southwest Airlines with a two-hour layover in Chicago. As I boarded the plane at Eppley and crammed my body into a middle seat, I couldn’t help but think: I’d rather be back on Air Force One.