No-frills flying on Taiwan's `Air Force One'

FLYING HIGH: President Chen's jet is nothing like its US counterpart, and doesn't have all the fancy equipment seen in movies, much to the media's disappointment

By Lin Chieh-yu  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sat, Jul 15, 2000 - Page 1

With neither an "ejection cabin" nor a "strategic command center," unlike the cinematic presidential jets of Hollywood legend, Air Force 3701, Taiwan's presidential aircraft, is an ordinary Boeing 737-800.

Its only unconventional accessory is a satellite communication system which enables the president to issue instructions while airborne.

Captain of the presidential jet, Colonel Wu Bin-chiu (吳賓求), said, "Even the real `Air Force One' of the United States does not have all that fictitious equipment, because the aircraft cannot be fitted with too many electric wires or antennae, which would compromise its hydrokinetics."

The Presidential Office yesterday flew reporters to the Tainan air base on Air Force 3701, together with President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), to attend the commissioning ceremony of Taiwan's second, and last, wing of locally made Ching Kuo fighters (經國號), widely known as the Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF).

Boarding the aircraft, reporters bombarded the crew with questions about, for example, where the "ejection cabin and command center" were, whether the plane was capable of defending itself, and which of the crew members were responsible for the president's safety in the event of an emergency.

A briefing by Colonel Wu, however, about the general functions of the jet brought the media back down to earth. The aircraft has none of the elaborate paraphernalia depicted in films, but does have high-tech navigation and communication systems.

The Presidential Jet, whose formal serial number is Air Force 3701 (Boeing 737 number one), was bought from the Boeing company of the US. It flew from Seattle on Feb. 4, arriving in Taiwan three days later.

The Ministry of Defense was allocated NT$2 billion to purchase and modify the aircraft and its crew was formally commissioned on March 18, presidential election day.

This aircraft, said Colonel Wu, could take 116 passengers originally and had been modified only in a few areas, such as the front section of the fuselage, while the central section and rear section remained unchanged.

"There are neither meeting rooms nor bedrooms inside for either the president or his security staff," Wu said, adding "those special spaces only exist in the movies."

Wu said that the president would need to hire a larger aircraft for foreign travel, such as his expected visit to Central America.

President Chen praised the presidential jet crew, led by Wu, and told reporters what he thought about the flight, saying, in a symbolic reference to his own current predicament, that taking off was similar to being in the early stages of a new government.

"The moment the presidential jet left the ground, it was hard to avoid feeling uncomfortable from all the vibration," Chen said, "but I don't think any passenger would request a new captain or even a new airplane." He added, "Because the passengers realize that the plane will fly smoothly when it reaches a certain altitude, everybody is patient and has confidence in the crew."