A shiny new Boeing 747 startled morning commuters yesterday when it circled low over downtown Baltimore and Fort McHenry with a smaller jet trailing behind.
"On a clear day we can see planes going into BWI, but this one was clearly circling the city," said Mary Akers, a secretary for the Hogan & Hartson law firm in the Legg Mason tower. "We wondered whether it was having problems. We saw a little jet near it and wondered whether it was crashing."
But neither the big plane -- it was Air Force One -- nor its escort was in trouble.
The morning sunlight was too bright for Ms. Akers to see the giant plane's blue-and-white coloring and the inscription on the side: United States of America.
The plane is President Bush's new official aircraft -- or "presidential support aircraft," as it is known on days such as yesterday when the president is not aboard.
Lt. Col. Darrell Hayes, a spokesman for the Air Forceat the Pentagon, said the plane was on a familiarization flight around Washington and Baltimore to allow the crew to get the feel of the modified Boeing 747. As long as the crew was taking it up, he said, a chase plane followed along from Andrews Air Force Base to get some scenic film over the waters around Baltimore.
The plane was delivered in August, he said, and began its career as Air Force One earlier this month when the president flew to Helsinki, Finland. A White House spokeswoman said President Bush wasn't aboard yesterday.
The specially modified 747 is the first of a pair costing a total of $266 million, Colonel Hayes said, and replaces the 1972-era 707s, which are harder to repair, get low mileage and don't meet pollution standards at many airports. The new plane has nine separate rooms and holds 93 people, including a crew of 23, while the old model held about 64.
Without the presidential modifications, he said, the plane sells for about $114 million.