Point of style: Why you should be careful calling the plane sent to transport Bush’s body Air Force One

As preparations for George H.W. Bush’s funeral come together, many news organizations are incorrectly reporting the role Air Force One will play in the first presidential funeral in recent memory.

  • Many news organizations are incorrectly reporting that Donald Trump “sent Air Force One” to Texas to then transport Bush’s body back to Washington.
  • Technically, “Air Force One” is the call sign for any military aircraft operating in airspace recognized by international conventions that is carrying the president of the United States — so, since Trump was not on board, it is technically incorrect to refer to it as “Air Force One.”
  • Many people think Air Force One refers to a specific aircraft — such as the name of a boat.
  • In fact, there are actually multiple specially modified aircraft that most Americans know as “Air Force One” — but, again, technically any military aircraft carrying the president can have this call sign (a pop culture example of this is when a military aircraft rescues the president, played by Harrison Ford, in the film “Air Force One” one of the crew announces the aircraft is changing signs).
  • In general, the name “Air Force One” is used when communicating with both America and foreign air traffic controllers when the president is on board.
  • When the president is not on board but in flight, the aircraft are known under standard call signs.
  • The flight and aircraft sent to Houston was officially known as “Special Air Mission 41,” according to the White House.
  • It does not appear that the “Air Force One” call sign is used when a former president, including a deceased one, is on board, so it does not appear the return trip to Washington with Bush’s body would still be under the “Air Force One” call sign either. Presumably this will fly under the “SAM 41” designator as well.
  • When being transported via military helicopter, the designator “Marine One” is typically used.
  • Presidents traveling on civil aircraft, which is a relatively rare occurrence, receive the designator “Executive One” as a call sign.

Here are alternative ways to refer to this situation:

  • “Presidential air craft.”
  • “The aircraft normally designated as Air Force One.”
  • “One of the aircraft commonly known as Air Force One.”
  • “One of the aircraft that normally transports the president.”
  • “Special Air Mission 41.”
  • “The aircraft Trump normally rides.”