Air Force One, a customized Boeing 747-200B aircraft, sits on the airfield at Pittsburgh International Airport in July 2015. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Planning for POTUS: Landing Air Force One (or Two)

Secret Service and SWAT teams—for airports, there’s a lot of baggage associated with the arrival of the famed Air Force One and Air Force Two aircraft.

Hours before Vice President Mike Pence landed at Allegheny County Airport (AGC) in West Mifflin, Pa., on Thursday, dozens of White House staff, government and public safety officials awaited his arrival.

That morning, police worked to barricade the airport’s entrances, among several other precautions. Other entities onsite included local and state police and SWAT, the Airport Authority aircraft rescue and firefighting teams, the county police bomb squad and military officials, among others.

And just as quickly as Air Force Two landed, the vice president and his support staff exited the Boeing C-32 and departed for the administration’s campaign bus and other vehicles. The motorcade then left for a visit in nearby Greensburg, Pa.

Vice President Mike Pence deplanes Air Force Two at Allegheny County Airport on Thursday, July 30. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Planning for a presidential visit begins several days before the actual arrival.

“We take great care in developing our operations plans along with Allegheny County Emergency Services to make sure the dignitary, whether it be the president or vice president or anyone else, has a safe visit,” said county Police Inspector Ken Ruckel.

In the days leading up to the arrival of Air Force Two, members of the White House staff arrived in Pittsburgh early to prepare. Additionally, an Air Force C-17 aircraft arrived from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, carrying necessary supplies for the visit.

To ensure the safety of the president, vice president, White House staff and their families, the agencies must prepare for the worst: aircraft incidents, active shooter threats and other acts of terrorism.

The teams follow the National Incident Command System structure established by the Federal Emergency Management System. The system helps crews work together, establishing leaders and liaisons responsible for making all the necessary preparations.

“The planning is intensive,” Ruckel added. “Everyone involved plays an important part in making sure there’s a safe arrival and departure.”

Typically, the presidential fleet lands at Pittsburgh International Airport for visits to the region. But the vice president’s advance team decided to land at AGC because of its proximity to Greensburg.

A motorcade prepares to escort Vice President Pence from Allegheny County Airport to Greensburg, PA on July 30, 2020. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

At Pittsburgh International, preparing for a visit from the president or vice president can take even more coordination, balancing the movement with commercial airline traffic and maintaining safety and security for all traveling persons.

“Safety and security are always the top priorities,” Airport Operations Duty Manager Bill Calhoon said.

Calhoon, who has worked at PIT for more than 14 years, has assisted with VIP visits spanning three presidencies: George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump.

“Usually, the advance party contacts us first,” explained Calhoon. “Then, we coordinate through Emergency Services to discuss the timeframe of the arrival, the president or vice president’s destination, and other information needed to begin planning and coordination.”

PIT’s airport operations crews assist by providing airfield escorts and other information about the airport, airfield and surrounding roadways. Air Force officials are also involved.

From there, police and other public safety officials will help coordinate rolling closures of surrounding roadways to allow the presidential motorcade to depart airport property.

“It’s amazing how much preparation goes into what can be a very short visit,” Calhoon said. “The second that airplane departs, it’s just a huge weight off your shoulders knowing that everything went well.”

Ultimately, the process is a personal matter for the entire airport team, he added.

“It’s patriotic and it’s an honor and a privilege,” Calhoon said.

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