a group of women standing in front of a large airplane

Korean Air Sells Five Boeing 747-8s for Possible USAF Conversion

Korean Air has announced the sale of five Boeing 747-8 jets to Sierra Nevada Corporation, a U.S. aerospace firm. The private firm specializes in converting Boeing 747s into presidential aircraft.

This news comes amidst Sierra Nevada’s recent acquisition of a $13 billion contract from the U.S. Air Force to develop a successor to the E-4B Nightwatch aircraft.

The E-4B, nicknamed the “Doomsday Plane,” is a heavily modified Boeing 747-200 that serves as a flying command center during emergencies and wartime scenarios. Four E-4Bs, based on the 747-200, were manufactured in the 1970s. 

While details on the specific aircraft (aircraft registration) of the Korean Air Boeing 747-8s being sold haven’t been disclosed, these aircraft will be sold in September 2025, as reported by Reuters.

“The sale, valued at 918 billion Korean won ($674 million), is in line with Korean Air’s medium to long-term plan to dispose of older aircraft and replace them with newer generation ones.”

Korean Air filing stated as reported by Reuters.
Korean Air Boeing 747-8
Korean Air Boeing 747-8

Replacing an Aging Fleet

The U.S. Air Force recently awarded a hefty $13 billion contract to Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) to develop and deliver the next-generation airborne command center, officially called the Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SAOC) but widely known as the “Doomsday Plane”.

The SAOC program aims to replace the current fleet of four E-4B Nightwatch aircraft that have been in service since the 1970s. These heavily modified jets serve as flying war rooms, equipped to keep the government functioning as a mobile command and control center during a crisis, even a nuclear war.

a large airplane on a runway
USAF E-4B Nightwatch Aircraft. Image: U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison

The contract win by SNC comes after Boeing, the original manufacturer of the E-4B and a strong contender for the SAOC project, couldn’t reach an agreement with the Air Force on contract details.

The SAOC program is a multi-year project expected to be completed by July 2036. The initial investment for fiscal year 2024 is set at $744 million, with the Air Force requesting roughly $1.7 billion for 2025.

About The E-4B – an Airborne Military Command Center

The United States Air Force has been operating multiple modified versions of the Boeing 747. One of these versions is the E-4B, a fully-equipped military command and control center. 

This military version was designed to provide the head of state and the Secretary of Defence with all the necessary tools in times of war.

Here are some of the key features of the E-4B:

Nicknamed the “Doomsday Plane”: While the official designation is E-4B, it’s also known by the more evocative name “Doomsday Plane”. This reflects its purpose as a last-resort command center during a crisis.

Highly Survivable: The E-4B is heavily modified to withstand harsh environments. It’s shielded against electromagnetic pulses (EMP) from nuclear blasts and has measures to mitigate thermal and nuclear effects.

a white and blue airplane flying in the sky
USAF E-4B Nightwatch Aircraft. Image: Balon Greyjoy via Wikimedia Commons

Advanced Communication Suite: Imagine a flying war room. The E-4B is packed with advanced communication equipment, allowing the President, Secretary of Defense, and Joint Chiefs of Staff to stay connected and issue commands even if the ground infrastructure is destroyed.

Long-Endurance Flyer: Refueling mid-air, the E-4B can stay airborne for an extended period, ensuring continuity of leadership during a prolonged crisis.

Large Crew Capacity: To operate this complex aircraft and command center, the E-4B has the largest crew-carrying capacity of any US Air Force aircraft, potentially reaching 112 people. This includes four flight crew, and up to 108 mission crew. This includes military personnel, security, communication specialists, and support staff.

Self-contained Command Center: The exact capabilities and equipment on board the E-4B are classified, but it’s understood to be a self-contained flying command center with everything needed to coordinate military operations, receive intelligence briefings, and even communicate with heads of state from other countries.

So, the E-4B is essentially a giant, armored flying briefcase for the highest levels of US military command.