Israel Reveals Its First-ever 'Air Force One.' Test Run Begins With a Hitch

Five years after Israeli Air Force One was ordered, at a cost of $164 million, the controversial project is about to begin its test flights

Israel's new 'Air Force One'
Alon Ron

The question of who Israel’s next prime minister will be has a lot of consequences for the future of the country, but in at least one respect, if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not remain in office, it will be an irony of fate.

Israel Aerospace Industries announced on Thursday that it is making its final preparations for the first test flight of a plane outfitted by the company at its Lod production facility for prime ministers for decades to come.

The company released the first photos of the Boeing 767-300ER jet, and noted that it is capable of flying east from Israel to China and Japan and west to the United States and Brazil without needing to refuel. The plane is also equipped with a sophisticated encrypted communications system that allows for secure, uninterrupted communication between the prime minister and relevant authorities. The plane was also initially to be outfitted with a shower, but that was ultimately scrapped due to the complexity of installing the necessary plumbing system.

The test flight is supposed to take place in the coming days at Ben Gurion International Airport, and part of the preparations includes testing the wheels and the plane's systems. Over the course of these tests on Thursday morning, one of the wheels started smoking. Airport firefighters who were already on standby for the tests rushed to the runway, but weren't needed in the end.

The aircraft was ordered at Netanyahu’s request, and its construction was accompanied by sharp criticism over the prime minister's investing a small fortune in it. But the political map has shifted; Netanyahu failed to form a government, and the the task has been given his rival, Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz. After years of anticipation, Netanyahu may not be the first prime minister to inaugurate and use the costly plane.   

The Finance Ministry maintained from the very beginning that from an economic standpoint, it made more sense to continue to fly the prime minister abroad a leased El Al aircraft outfitted to the premier's needs. But a committee headed by retired Justice Eliezer Goldberg determined in 2014 that there would be a security benefit to buying a designated plane for the prime minister, citing the Shin Bet security agency, which said that it would allow the head of state to run the country freely from the skies.

As time went on, criticism mounted over the ballooning cost of the plane. Initially the Goldberg Committee referenced a projected cost of $76.5 million. The Finance Ministry’s figure was $50 million, not including additions designed to protect the plane. But by the time the request for bids on the plane was issued, the Finance Ministry’s estimate price tag exceeded about $200 million. The final price for the plane was $164 million, including maintenance expenses for the coming several years.  

One major issue that the project faced was choosing which type of plane to purchase. To cut costs, the Prime Minister's Office went with the 15-year-old Boeing 767, a much cheaper option than the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. There are those who still claim that the choice was wrong. Over the past year, El Al decided to pull all of its own 767s from service.

The Prime Minister’s Office is relying on El Al pilots who are trained to fly 767s to fly the new plane. But since El Al has now stopped flying 767s, there won’t be pilots from the airline who will be able to fly the model in the future. The cost of maintaining their skills to operate the jet will therefore fall on the Israeli taxpayer. While the purchase price of the 767 is lower, when it comes to the cost of maintenance, the 767 is less cost-effective than a 787 would have been.