Luke Sharrett is a Washington, D.C. based contract press photographer for the New York Times. He covers politics inside the beltway at the White House, Capitol Hill and wherever else the campaign trail takes him. When not photographing political events, he can be found eating cheesesteaks, doing pushups, and watching trains.
Without a doubt, the best part of being a press photographer in Washington, D.C. is traveling with the President of The United States. Along with print reporters, a rotating network television crew, and radio correspondents, four still photographers round out the 13 person White House travel pool. Anywhere The President travels, photographers from the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and The New York Times accompany him.
The experience of traveling aboard the President’s plane starts a few days ahead of time, when your name and vital information is submitted to the Secret Service and U.S. Air Force for background checks. The excitement and anticipation of the next couple days is enough to get you through even the most tedious Capitol Hill hearing.
When the morning of the trip arrives the White House Press Corp gathers just outside the Capital Beltway at a back entrance to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. As one approaches the passenger terminal on base the distinctive “hump” of the 747 and it’s massive flag-adorned tail are visible rising above the roof of the single story terminal. After a series of security screenings most photographers break out their laptops and begin cranking out pre-written captions based on the White House daily schedule. As a rule, the less time you spend transmitting the more time you have to shoot.
Half an hour before the President is scheduled to depart the White House, the press pool is lead across the tarmac toward the majestic looming Presidential plane. Walking toward the elegant Boeing 747 gleaming in the sun with two cameras on your shoulder and a laptop on your back never gets old. It’s truly a breathtaking experience. The pool enters Air Force One on a retractable staircase at the rear of the plane. After another flight of steps the pool arrives in the press cabin. Sequestered by bulkheads on three sides, the press cabin is home to two rows of seven first class leather seats. With ample leg room and plenty of room to recline, this flight is unlike most you will ever experience. Two Video screens built into the forward bulkhead can play a selection of recent and classic movies or be tuned into popular cable channels like CNN or ESPN. At the rear of the cabin is a lavatory stocked with towels, toothpaste, and mouthwash. Copies of the day’s New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are stacked neatly beside two baskets overflowing with fresh fruit and candy. Roving Air Force flight attendants stroll through the cabin taking drink orders and handing out hot towels. Before we can settle in too far, an announcement comes over the plane’s intercom, “Attention onboard the aircraft, The President has departed with an approximately 10 minute flight time.” It’s time to go to work.
We grab our gear and descend back down the rear staircase. The only part of the President’s double-decker jetliner we are privileged to roam is the press cabin we’ve just come from. Other cabins onboard are reserved for White House Staff, Secret Service, Air Force personnel, and of course The President himself. Soon after we step foot back onto the tarmac at Andrews three U.S. Marine Sea King helicopters come into view, one of which (Marine One) carries the President of the United States. Two salutes, a set of stairs, and one quick wave later and the President is aboard. We sprint for the rear stairs and once again ascend to the press cabin. While Air Force One is equipped with wifi, phone lines, and advanced communications equipment, none of these privileges are extended to the press. This means that before climbing above cell service we have to move the photos we just shot on the ground via air card. The pressure’s on. Ingest, quick levels, resize, slap on that pre-written caption and transmit as you barrel down the runway with engines blasting. Takeoff and landing with seatbacks reclined, tray tables out, and electronic devices in use is a common occurrence. Only on Air Force One.
As the last of our photos beam out to the nearest cell tower, food is served. Presented on Air Force One china plates, the chefs aboard the plane are renowned for whipping up delicious three course meals. No peanuts here (unless you count the souvenir boxes of Presidential Peanut M&M’s). In my two years or so of flying on Air Force One I’ve never had a bad meal and I’ve never had the same meal twice. After each trip our respective news organizations are billed by the Air Force for the price of a comparable commercial first class ticket plus a dollar. If you ever get the chance to upgrade from first class to Air Force One for a dollar, take it.
Flying on Air Force One is a huge honor and the highlight of many photojournalists’ careers. I’ve been extremely blessed to cover Washington politics for The New York Times at such a young age. I owe a debt of gratitude to my editors and my mentors at the NYT (Doug Mills and Steve Crowley) for having faith in me. Every time I set foot on Air Force One I thank the good Lord for such an amazing undeserved opportunity to make pictures for a living.