Behold The Controversial $1.1M Paint Job On The United Kingdom's Version Of Air Force One (Updated)

The VIP-configured tanker transport, which also serves in non-VIP transport roles, as needed, had previously worn a standard gray paint scheme.

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Pictures and videos have now emerged offering the first full look at the U.K. Royal Air Force's VIP-configured Voyager tanker transport aircraft wearing its new high-visibility paint job with the Union Jack on the tail. This change reportedly cost 900,000 pounds, or just over $1.1 million at the present rate of exchange. The British government made the decision to repaint the aircraft, which previously wore the standard gray scheme found on all other RAF Voyagers, to help it better promote the country's national brand when it delivers the Prime Minister, members of the Royal Family, and other senior officials to their destinations. This also gives it an appearance that is more in line with that of the VIP aircraft that other countries use, such as the U.S. Air Force's iconic VC-25A Air Force One aircraft.

Twitter user @TommyGs_Tweets, an airspace regulator, pilot, and plane spotter, shared some of the first images of the Voyager, which carries the registration number ZZ336, leaving a hangar at a Cambridge City Airport in Cambridgeshire with its new paint scheme. Voyager is the RAF's name for the Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT).

ZZ336, which first went into the hangar on June 9, is now primarily white, with the stylized Union Jack on the tail and blue flourish along both sides of the fuselage. "United Kingdom" is written in gold lettering on the upper portion of the center of the fuselage on both sides, as well. Some observers were initially concerned that the Union Jack might have been painted incorrectly, but this has turned out to be incorrect.

The scheme matches the one seen on an official diagram that leaked out online yesterday. AirlinerVideos subsequently posted a video showing the tail of the aircraft peeking out of the hangar at Cambridge City Airport.

The aircraft has now departed Cambridge City Airport in its new livery.

"The RAF Voyager used by the royal family and the PM [Prime Minister is currently in Cambridgeshire for pre-planned repainting," Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson had told The Guardian newspaper on June 24, 2020. "This will mean that the plane can better represent the U.K. around the world with national branding, which will be in line with many other leaders’ planes."

It's not clear whether Johnson, who became Prime Minister in July 2019, ordered the change, or if it had been in the works beforehand. "Why does it have to be grey?" he had lamented in 2018 when he was the United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary. At that time he was advocating for a dedicated VIP plane for the country's Foreign Office.

"What I will say about the Voyager, I think it’s great, but it seems to be very difficult to get hold of. It never seems to be available," he added at the time. "I don’t know who uses it, but it never seems to be available."

The cost of the new paint job has already received significant criticism in a time of tight U.K. budgets and global economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's also unclear if the price of repainting the aircraft is already covered in the terms of the U.K. Ministry of Defense's existing deal with AirTanker, a European consortium that includes Airbus. That firm leases nine Voyagers to the RAF, including ZZ336. 

There have also been concerns about whether the new paint job may limit the aircraft's ability to serve as tanker transport, if needed, something it is technically required to be able to do. The RAF does not have a dedicated long-haul VIP plane, instead using this Voyager to support the Prime Minister, the Royal Family, other senior officials, and their accompanying delegations and members of the press. When flying these missions, ZZ336 has a special internal VIP configuration consisting of a first-class executive suite, known as Cabin A, as well as airline-style business-class seating. 

At the same time, there are increasingly significant limits to the utility of traditional camouflage in aerial combat, especially with regards to non-stealthy support aircraft, such as tankers and airlifters, which are becoming increasingly vulnerable, in general. 

In addition, despite concerns that the plane might emerge wearing a lurid Austin Powers-esque paint job, the scheme that ZZ336 is now wearing is actually very similar stylistically to ones that the RAF's pair of smaller BAe 146 CC.2 VIP transports have worn in the past. The U.K. Ministry of Defense has been in the process of trying to sell those aircraft, as well as two gray-painted BAe 146 C.3 variants, but recently reconfigured some of them to help respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's also well in line with the appearance of other national-level VIP aircraft belonging to other large countries, including major U.K. allies, such as the United States and Canada. The story of Canada's "Can Force One" and how it got its own controversial high-visibility paint scheme is actually very similar in many respects to what is now transpiring with regards to ZZ336.

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An RAF BAe 146 CC.2 VIP transport.

No matter what, this Voyager will now certainly get a different kind of attention when it makes official visits in the future.

Update: 12:45 PM EST—

The Royal Air Force has now issued an official press release regarding the newly painted Voyager, which is also nicknamed Vespina.  The aircraft is now back at RAF Brize Norton, the home of the service's entire Voyager fleet.

"This project was a privilege to have been involved in and I am delighted to have seen it delivered so quickly and efficiently, together with our industry partners," RAF Air Commodore Simon Edwards, the chief officer in charge of the repainting project, said in a statement. "The aircraft’s new paint scheme will better reflect its prestige role which we are proud to undertake."

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The RAF says that repainting was part of a larger refurbishment effort that came about as a result of the U.K. government's 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, but it remains unclear if it had already been paid for through previous contracts.

"The Project first created and agreed an outline design before being modified to account for commercial, legal, operational and design needs," the press release says. "This process was not only about the visual design, this was a complex engineering project requiring detailed drawings which were developed by Airbus. Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group were then chosen to deliver the project on time and within budget."

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com