ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE – Five stories high and nearly a city block long, Air Force One is the most unmistakable plane in the world. Much more than just transportation for the president of the United States, the powder blue and white jet is itself a striking symbol of American might.

Television stations break into regular programming to show the enormous plane landing. Candidates race miles out of their way to be photographed at its steps. Film studios employ it – or replicas – in movies and television shows.

With 2003 marking the 60th year of presidential air travel, Air Force One remains one of the coolest perks of the presidency.

President Bush has a bedroom suite complete with a shower in the nose of the plane. There is a separate office and a wood-paneled conference room nearby. A treadmill was installed so Bush could keep up his exercise routine. He also had a satellite television system put in so he could see his favorite sports teams.

The plane, with 4,000 square feet of interior space, has 87 telephones, a half-dozen bathrooms and an emergency surgery bay with a pullout operating table.

“The thing about Air Force One is, they don’t lose my luggage,” President Bush’s father once joked. He also appreciated that it always takes off on time, whenever the president desires.

With hundreds of stored meals and the capability of being refueled in midair, Air Force One can stay aloft for over a week. Without refueling it can fly halfway around the world and carry 6,000 pounds of baggage. Its 238 miles of wiring are shielded against a nuclear blast. An anti-missile system protects the plane.

Always a subject of intense interest, the plane is the subject of a new book, “Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes,” by U.S. News & World Report correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh.

Any plane that carries the president is called Air Force One, and a fleet of more than a dozen other smaller aircraft is maintained for the president, senior members of his administration and visiting leaders.

But the plane most identified as Air Force One is a super-retrofitted Boeing 747-200B. Actually, there are two of them, identical except for their tail numbers, 28000 and 29000, so a plane is always available for the president.

The interior evokes an elegant conference center: sedate tones on the walls, leather armchairs and curtains. Guest quarters are equipped with large swivel chairs around a big table and working offices for staff.

There is no comparison with civilian aircraft. Standing during takeoff is not necessarily a no-no. First-run movies are ready to order. Boxes of M&Ms with the Air Force One logo make an envied gift. In fact, everything blares Air Force One – the gold and white china, the fleece blankets, the individual salt-and-pepper shakers.

The only sacrifice is passenger capacity – 76 passengers and 26 crew, or less than a third of the aircrafts’ commercial counterpart.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Air Force One was the scene of much late-night card playing. Hearts was his preferred game. The president frequently wandered to the back of the plane, past the Secret Service cabin, to the press quarters at the rear. Sometimes he lingered with reporters for hours on long flights.

Bush never stops by the press cabin. Other than cheerleading aides’ games of Risk, he mostly spends his time working on speeches and visiting with traveling lawmakers, aides say. The menu leans toward Tex-Mex.

Sometimes the plane is a political prop. Last year, Air Force One was used for dozens of landings in Bush’s successful bid to strengthen Republicans’ grip on Congress.

Crowds assembled in airport hangars cheered the plane’s arrival. Events were staged so Bush would be photographed speaking – candidate at his side – with the jet filling the background.

Bush’s effort helped increase the planes’ mileage for the year – a total of 192,500 miles in 2002 in trips to about 150 locations. That exceeds a yearly average of the much-traveled Clinton’s 1.4 million miles over eight years (175,000), as Walsh’s book detailed.

The 747s have touched down in 85 countries over almost 13 years and three presidents. Bush has added five nations to the list: Sweden, Slovenia, Yugoslavia, Peru and Lithuania.

After the November elections, Bush’s use of the plane dropped.

It fell even further as war in Iraq approached and the president remained mostly homebound to tend to national security issues; there was a three-week travel hiatus just before the start of hostilities and an additional 10-day pause in the conflict’s early days.

Even then, Bush took to Air Force One only for war-related travels.

Now, the president has begun taking again to the sky – and politically strategic states – as the war winds down and he turns attention to selling his domestic agenda.

Still, there have been rare times when the planes have appeared a political liability.

When the two now in use, ordered by former President Reagan to replace smaller, aging Boeing 707s, arrived late and overbudget, Bush’s father fretted the public would view them as too lavish. “Thank heavens somebody else did OK for me five years ago,” he remarked on 28000’s maiden journey on Sept. 6, 1990.

And the opposition perennially tries to make hay out of the president using the plane for political benefit. Bush was criticized after Republicans used a photo of him aboard Air Force One on Sept. 11, 2001 – peering out a window while talking by phone with Vice President Dick Cheney on one of the plane’s most historic days – in a fund-raising pitch.

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