Cold Warrior Gates outlasts Cold War airplane

WASHINGTON – After 664,150 miles, the equivalent of 26 trips around the equator, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was set for the final flight home. But instead, an old Cold Warrior had enough, threw in the towel, and called it quits. Not Gates. I’m talking about his plane, which after a nine-day journey around the globe was grounded in Brussels on Friday by a brake problem, forcing the entire traveling party to move into a C-17 for the final trans-Atlantic flight to Washington.

The E-4B “Doomsday” plane, aka “Nightwatch,” – now aka “Big Brisket” – is a militarized, nuclear-proof 747, and a relic. Sure, it has the world’s most advanced communications systems, a five-mile long cable to secretly communicate with submarines, and can refuel and stay in the air for days. And Gates can run a nuclear war or watch NBA playoffs from its secure cabins. But there are still ashtrays in the restrooms, which has peeling wallpaper, dust-clogged vents, and more than a few loose screws. Armrests are known to…just fall off.  The electronic switches are vintage 1970s. And it’s freezing cold.

The aircraft is a beast that has hauled Gates and his entourage of Pentagon staffers and reporters around the world over and over. This is no Air Force One, with its wood paneling and first-class accoutrements. This is its blue-collar brother, extra heavy, coated with special paints to withstand electromagnetic nuclear pulses, loaded with dozens of communications antenna, and tricked out engines that can get off the ground in a hurry.

For Pentagon reporters on the road, toe-touching from Baghdad to Beijing, let's be honest, it’s a bit of clunker. But we like to think it’s our clunker. A $1 billion clunker. It’s our home away from home.

There are actually four copies of the aircraft. One of them is always on standby for emergencies while two others are in the shop for maintenance and upgrades. (Uh … about those bathrooms?)

For all of the miles put on that machine, it’s amazing how the Air Force crew has kept the plane flying and served the traveling parties on long hauls topping 20 hours, at times.  But it’s not the first time it broke.  In 2009, a tail flap prevented in-flight refueling, forcing Gates to hop-scotch from Washington to Kansas to Hawaii to Guam to reach a conference in Singapore.

Along the way, the “Doomsday” plane earned a new nickname: Big Brisket.  After a couple years on the road, Gates realized that along with the power to deploy troops, he also had the power to pick the menu on his plane. The native Kansan has a hankering for beef.  It’s a tradition that the last leg home is the time to serve up BBQ beef brisket.  It’s tangy, but let’s just say there’s not a lot of moisture left in the cabin at 30,000 feet. It often follows a bacon cheeseburger on the menu. 

After more than week of airplane and hotel food, lugging gear, long nights and very early mornings, well, sometimes the brisket doesn’t get the respect it deserves.  But for this last trip, reporters have been tweeting their excitement for that last brisket in the sky on Friday’s flight home to Washington. 

At last report, the Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes and The Associated Press’ Bob Burns were tweeting that the crew had transferred everyone from the broken E-4B to the C-17.

Barnes tweeted: “#doomsdayplane busted. #nobrisket?”

To show their appreciation, even the Air Force crew knew the way to the secretary’s heart is through his stomach. They presented a commemorative aircraft window engraved with:

24 equivalent legs around the world…
35 work-weeks flying in the E-4B NAOC… [National Airborne Operations Center]
More than 100 countries visited…
250 international travel days…
Just over 16 lbs of brisket enjoyed at 30,000’…
It has been our pleasure and honor to serve!

Robert M. Gates
Secretary of Defense

UPDATE: The brisket made it on board the C-17, Bob Burns tells me. Here's a picture, posted by Barnes. Hash tag: #lastflightofthebigbrisket

Related: Travels with Secretary Gates (official DOD page)



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