US Air Force Offers Look Inside of 'Doomsday Plane'

Source: Image: CNET/Daniel Terdiman

The E-4B aircraft is designed to withstand the effects of a nuclear detonation.

Across all the nation, there’s no aircraft quite like the US Air Force’s E-4B, a modified Boeing 747 that’s designed to ferry the secretary of Defense and survive a nuclear attack. The aircraft goes by a couple different names, including the “National Airborne Operations Center” and “Nightwatch,” but others may simply refer to it as the “Doomsday Plane.”

“It’s like a backup Pentagon,” one of the US Air Force crew member told CNBC. “There’s always one plane on alert and ready to go 24 hours, seven days a week.”

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The colossal E-4B is almost six stories tall and sports four gigantic engines. Additionally, the plane and its equipment are shielded to withstand the blast from a nuclear detonation. Its sparse windows and cockpit glass use an etched metallic mesh to shield against radiation. The flight and communications equipment are also shielded against EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) that would destroy ordinary electronics.

The Air Force maintains a total of four E-4B planes that have been in operation since 1980. The plane was first introduced in 1974 and has been continually upgraded. Its service is expected to continue until the end of 2039.

Although the aircraft’s full capabilities are classified, pictures reveal how many of the devices on board are purposefully from the pre-digital analog era. There are no digital touchpads installed on the plane for an EMP to fry.

There is also a noticeable hump on the top of the plane called a “ray dome,” which houses almost 67 different satellite dishes and antennas. The allows the craft to communicate with ships, submarines, aircraft and landlines anywhere in the world.

The plane has a three decks and supports a crew of up to 112 people. Inside, there are 18 bunks, six bathrooms, a galley, a briefing room, a conference room, a battle staff work area and executive quarters.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan boarded the Nightwatch at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Tuesday morning for a week-long trip to Asia. This marks Shanahan’s second international trip since taking on the role, and destinations include Hawaii, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

The crew told the CNBC that the plane would “clock a total of 22,538 nautical miles” during the eight-day trip with the help of three aerial refuelings and six tankers. With aerial refueling, the E-4B can stay in the air for several days straight.


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