[This capsule review refers to the program as aired on National Geographic in January, 2009.]
"On Board Air Force One" (and its companion "On Board Marine One") are fine examples of documentary film-making about subjects of continuing public fascination: presidential air transports. There have been many prior documentaries about presidential aircraft (at least two others from National Geographic), but "On Board Air Force One" includes more recent details about specific operations during the administration of George W. Bush.
On September 11th, 2001, the Air Force One commander, Col. Mark Tillman, was tasked with getting the president airborne from Sarasota and out of possible harm's way as quickly as possible. Col. Tillman describes the events of that day and his thinking process in choosing flight paths and destinations to accommodate his twin missions of getting the president wherever he needed to go as Commander-in-Chief and keeping him safe from further threats at the same time. On-camera comments from former President Bush about this day reflect his frustration over having no way to address the nation from the airplane (now rectified, we are told) and having limited means to stay in reliable contact with other administration officials during that time of crisis.
Another sequence in this documentary covers the surprise visit President Bush made to Baghdad for Thanksgiving of 2003. The interviewees give more detail than usual about the extraordinary steps required to keep this mission under wraps--some of which admittedly violate international aviation laws. As the events are re-told, it becomes clear that the mission could have been aborted at any stage for the smallest of information leaks--such as when an observant airline pilot over London passing near to the president's plane asked air traffic control if "that was Air Force One." ATC responded with the information provided on the flight plan (and encoded into the aircraft's identification system) that the aircraft in question was a Gulfstream type. The airline pilot undoubtedly knew that he had seen a 747 typically used to transport the president, but he kept any further queries off the frequency and allowed the mission to continue. The pilot of the backup "Air Force One" aircraft was also required to make this flight closely behind the primary aircraft and to land in an undisclosed nearby country. He is briefly interviewed on-camera about his experiences as well.
The final scenes include (then) President-Elect Barack Obama's first flight on board the presidential aircraft as he travels from Chicago to Washington, DC shortly after his election in 2008. We see command of the aircraft transferred from Col. Tillman to the new pilot who will take over this duty permanently once the Inauguration takes place. The President-Elect comes aboard and receives his introductions to key aircraft staff members. In this scene, the aircraft is used as a symbol of the continuity of government we enjoy in the United States even when administrations change between competing parties.
As always, the deeply curious viewer will be unsatisfied because there are many classified elements of the aircraft that cannot be shared with the general public, but this particular documentary does a fine job of relating the experience of flying aboard Air Force One as if you had the clearance required to wander the plane at will. The somewhat more comprehensive interview elements with crew members in this documentary supplement the typical content and make this program one well worth viewing.