The Boeing E-4B “Nightwatch”— An Apocalypse-Ready Plane

A crucial system in the nuclear deterrence of the United States

The Boeing E-4B touches down in front of a flock of birds. Source Airline, photographer Benjamin Freer.

When we talk about military aviation, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the silhouette and acrobatic evolutions of a fighter, or the range and the weapons load of a bomber, but today we are talking about a crucial system in the nuclear deterrence of the United States, and of which there is only one aircraft in service, the USAF Boeing E-4B.

The E-4B is a highly modified version of the civilian Boeing 747–200s, received between the 1970s and 1980s, so the Pentagon is already looking for a substitute, in conjunction with the US Navy E-6Bs for airborne command post and communications relay, and the C-32A transport aircraft.

The E-4B mission is to serve as the national airborne nuclear command center, for which it has been equipped with the most advanced communication systems, as well as countermeasures of all kinds and systems which are resistant to electromagnetic pulses — characteristic of nuclear explosions, and that literally destroy all electronic equipment.

An Air Force E-4B approaches the boom of a KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to Fairchild Air Force Base, over the Pacific coast, April 10, 2014. The E-4B serves as the National Airborne Operations Center for the president, secretary of defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In case of national emergency or destruction of ground command control centers, the aircraft provides a highly survivable, command, control, and communications center to direct U.S. forces, execute emergency war orders, and coordinate actions by civil authorities. Source U.S. Air Force, by Senior Airman Mary O’Dell.

Once in flight, the President of the United States will travel on board, or in his absence due to death, any of the surviving civilians within the national command line, in order to be able to give the effective order to launch the strategic-range nuclear missiles in a counterattack.

No less than 112 crew members will accompany the president on board. This nuclear attack mission of the E-4B is what has led to the nickname coined “plane of the end of the world” or the “Apocalypse”. The E-4Bs are operated by the 1st Airborne Command and Control Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

As technical curiosities, we can say that the E-4B has been designed to stay in flight for up to a whole week after successive refueling in flight since the most important limitation is determined by the duration of the engine lubricants.

To complete the fuel load of an E-4B you need the load of no less than two full KC-135s. In the cabin, there are 29 consoles in which they are agglutinated
controllers, officers responsible for the nuclear missiles’ launch sequence, and even a meteorologist, all under the supervision of a commander.

To communicate with submerged submarines, it has an extendable antenna 8km long! Another curious fact is that the instruments in the cockpit have not been modernized to digital standards, keeping the old watches of the original B747, since these instruments are much more resistant to electromagnetic pulses.

When the president travels aboard the famous “Air Force One”, another version of the Boeing 747, an E-4B, is located in another nearby airport due to the possibility of an international crisis that requires a mobile nuclear command post.

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Rodney Rodríguez Robles is an aerospace engineer, cyclist, blogger, and cutting edge technology advocate, living a dream in the aerospace industry he only dreamed of as a kid. He talks about coding, the history of aeronautics, rocket science, and all the technology that is making your day by day easier.

Please check me out on the following social networks as well, I would love to hear from you! — LinkedIn.

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Aerospace Engineer at Airbus Defence and Space with a great passion for Technology and Science.

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