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Future of the 'Doomsday Planes'

Posted January 04, 2018 11:29 AM by HUSH

The E-4 aircraft is one of the most unique airplanes in the world. It serves in the U.S. Air Force's National Emergency Airborne Command Post, based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Translated from military jargon to English, that means the plane's primary role is to serve as the decision nerve center in the event ground stations are compromised following a nuclear attack.

These four planes are Boeing 747-200 models that were initially manufactured in the 1970s, in a program dubbed Nightwatch. Eventual technology improvements led to the E-4B. The E-4B is a dedicated, advanced airborne communications platform and is also hardened against the potential effects of an electromagnetic pulse that accompanies a nuclear blast. All aircraft wiring and electronics are radiation shielded, as is the aircraft's cabin and cockpit. The film shield that is typically found on the inside of a microwave door is outfitted on the cockpit windows and analog controls are favored over electronic, as they are less likely to be corrupted by an EMP. The plane also features direct fire countermeasures, likely some combination of thermal anti-missile flares, chaff and infrared missile jammers.

Since this plane can survive a nearby nuclear blast and then organize a retaliatory strike, the plane is simply massive and extremely well-engineered. The plane is divided into three levels, with the top level dedicated to the cockpit and rest areas for the flight crew. The middle level contains all the primary business: a conference room, briefing room, work stations for 29 staffers, communications center and staff R&R areas. Meanwhile the lowest level features the executive lounge, galley, extra accommodations and gear storage. If fuel is resupplied mid-flight, the E-4 can fly for over a week without touching down. The plane can accommodate over 110 people if needed and has the largest minimum crew in the USAF fleet at 48.

In a true nuclear attack, the U.S President would use this plane as an airborne command center along with senior military officials. The plane can connect with virtually every communication system worldwide and even has a 5-mile-long trailing wire antenna to communicate with ballistic missile submarines. During the Cold War, it was standard practice to have one E-4 on alert at all times and located at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland, spitting distance from Washington D.C.

(Click here or the illustration at right for an enlargeable version.)

The E-4 also serves in auxiliary missions. For every overseas trip the President makes on Air Force One, an E-4 accompanies but lands at a different airport. In case of emergency or if Air Force One is grounded, the E-4 can then serve as Air Force One. Other military officials, such as the Secretary of Defense, use the E-4 as their primary international travel method. The aircraft has also served as mobile command posts for FEMA personnel after natural disasters.

In June 2017 a tornado at Offutt AFB damaged two of the planes, rendering them unusable until repaired. Prior to this, there had already been considerable discussion regarding the future of the E-4, with the fleet originally set for retirement in 2009. Military officials felt many of the executive and communications roles carried out by the E-4s, the Air Force One models (Boeing VC-25s) and the E-8 surveillance planes could be consolidated into one new, cheaper aircraft. Eventually these plans were scrapped.

Last month the Air Force announced it would exercise an $80 million contract option for additional upkeep and upgrades to the E-4 fleet, presumably to fix the damaged planes and keep them in service for the foreseeable future. However, aircraft frame fatigue is expected to occur around 2039, and considering the long development cycles of military hardware, officials and aerospace engineers need to presently start scratching their heads on the E-4's replacement. According to The War Zone blog, there are plans to make the successor aircraft to the E-4, the C-32 (the model of plane for Air Force Two) and the E-6 (a plane with a similar but more marginalized role as the E-4) of the same platform.

The threat of all-out nuclear war has subsided since the E-4 was introduced, but there remain nuclear threats in the world today, meaning the 'doomsday planes' still have an important role to fill.

59 comments; last comment on 01/15/2018
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Recently Discovered Photo Shows Amelia Earhart May Have Survived Plane Crash

Posted July 06, 2017 8:44 AM by lmno24

A recently discovered photo shows that aviator Amelia Earhart may have survived a crash landing in the Marshall Islands.

The photo, found in a long-lost file in the National Archives, shows a woman who resembles Earhart and a man who appears to be her navigator, Fred Noonan, on a dock. The discovery is featured in a new History channel special, "Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence," that airs this Sunday.

Credit: National Archives

Analysts told the History Channel that the photo appears legitimate. The man pictured has Noonan’s distinct hairline, while the woman has Earhart’s short hairstyle.

She was last heard from on July 2, 1937, during her quest to become the first woman to circumnavigate the Earth. She was declared dead two years later and her remains were never found. It was concluded that she crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

This image suggests they did in fact survive the flight, and were potentially taken captive by the Japanese.

This photo would back the theory that the two survived a crash-landing in the Marshall Islands and were held prisoner by the Japanese military on the island of Saipan until their deaths.

For years, locals claimed to have seen the plane crash. But some native schoolchildren in the area said they saw the pair being taken into captivity.

What do you think?

31 comments; last comment on 07/15/2017
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Get Yourself a Job at NASA

Posted June 19, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Working for this top federal government agency isn't just for astronauts. There are many jobs out there for many different education levels and skill sets. See what's out there, both on land and in outer space.

Editor's Note: This news brief was brought to you by the Aerospace Technology eNewsletter. Subscribe today to have content like this delivered to your inbox

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Automated System Co-pilots a Simulated Boeing 737

Posted May 25, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

This robotic co-pilot is designed to function as a second pilot in a two-crew aircraft, enabling reduced crew operations while ensuring mission success. The automated flight capabilities were engineered by Aurora Flight Science.

Editor's Note: This news brief was brought to you by the Aerospace Technology eNewsletter. Subscribe today to have content like this delivered to your inbox

2 comments; last comment on 05/28/2017
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Boeing Cuts Engineers as Aircraft Sales Slow

Posted May 02, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Boeing has cut its Washington workforce by 9% to 70,640 employees over the past year as sales and revenue slow. The company's total headcount has shrunk 7.6% to 146,962 since March 2016.

Editor's Note: This news brief was brought to you by the Aerospace Technology eNewsletter. Subscribe today to have content like this delivered to your inbox

7 comments; last comment on 05/17/2017
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