How to Fly an American President Into a Country at War

By the time they came to the back of Air Force One to tell us what to do in case of a rocket attack, it was clear that this was not going to be an ordinary presidential trip.

The famous blue-and-white Boeing 747 was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean this week ferrying President Biden to Israel, which is in the middle of a war with Hamas, and the security folks were giving instructions to the traveling journalists about how to avoid, well, dying.

They handed out cheat-sheet pocket-size notecards with directions for how to respond if an air raid siren went off, indicating a possible strike by Hamas while we were on the ground. What to do if there were an attack while we were under the wing of Air Force One on the tarmac waiting for the president to disembark. What to do if there were an attack while we were in the motorcade heading into Tel Aviv. What to do if there were an attack at the hotel where Mr. Biden was to meet with Israeli officials.

Mr. Biden hoped to use the visit to deter Iran and its proxy forces in the region and prevent the conflict from expanding.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

A child watches through a window as reporters pass.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Never mind that the teeny, tiny font of the advice on the notecard would be awfully hard to read at the moment we thought a rocket was shooting our way. But it was the first time since I started covering the White House in 1996 that I could remember such a briefing for reporters on Air Force One, a sign of just how uncertain the trip could be.

After all, they were bringing the president and his traveling party into a country at war in broad daylight on live television. Air Force One was to land at Ben-Gurion International Airport well within range of Hamas rockets from Gaza, a place considered hazardous enough that many international airlines have stopped flying there.

Just the day before, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany had to be evacuated from his own plane at the same airport because of air raid sirens and rushed to a shelter. The reporters traveling with him? Ordered to throw themselves down on the tarmac and lie flat until the danger passed.

Just the day before that, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was similarly hustled to a shelter during a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The reporters with him were scrambled out of vans and into the stairwell of a building to ride out the possible attack.

Mr. Biden was greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his arrival in Israel.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

It was already shaping up to be an unusual presidential trip in other ways. Even as the motorcade arrived at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland for the takeoff of Air Force One, we learned that the second half of the trip, a stop in Jordan for Mr. Biden to meet with Arab leaders, had just been abruptly called off because of the explosion at a Gaza hospital. Air Force One was rolling down the runway and the itinerary of the trip was suddenly in flux.

There is, of course, a reason that presidents are not generally flown into countries at war. When it has happened in the past, it was usually under more controlled circumstances. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to fly to an overseas destination during wartime when he traveled to Casablanca during the North African campaign of World War II and no one was told until after he had safely arrived. Reporters thought he was heading to his Hyde Park home in New York.

Following that precedent, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama flew to Afghanistan or Iraq under cover of secrecy, their arrivals not announced in advance and their brief stays measured in hours and confined to American military bases. Once when Mr. Bush was being spirited out of Washington for a war zone trip, his cover was almost blown when a panhandler approached his unmarked vehicle at a stoplight. While the president was told to duck down, a quick-thinking Secret Service agent in the car behind him shoved a few dollars out the window to attract the panhandler’s attention.

The public watched as Mr. Biden’s motorcade passed.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times
A security stood at his post during the president’s visit.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

When Mr. Biden traveled to Ukraine this year, he was the first president to visit a country at war outside the relative security of an American military presence, but that trip was likewise shrouded in secrecy. For fear of Russian antiaircraft missiles, Mr. Biden was transported by a nine-hour train trip to Kyiv with only a handful of aides, guards and two journalists accompanying him.

By contrast, the White House announced Mr. Biden’s trip to Israel in advance. And although it asked reporters traveling with him to keep the particulars of his schedule confidential until his arrival, Mr. Netanyahu’s office in Israel published where and when he would be going before he landed.

The security briefing on the plane was surreal. While I had covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I had not been among the few reporters to fly with Mr. Bush or Mr. Obama there. But even then, I was told, reporters were not given the kind of briefing we were given en route to Tel Aviv.

In a speech in Tel Aviv, Mr. Biden announced $100 million in aid to help civilians in Gaza and the West Bank.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

We were told that if we heard an air raid siren, called “azaka” in Israel for alarm, we would have roughly one minute until impact if the rocket were coming our way. If it happened while we were on the tarmac covering the president’s arrival, we should run full speed to the nearby motorcade vehicles. If a siren went off while we were in the vehicles, we should stay in them — the opposite of Israeli security protocol, which is to get out of a vehicle and find other cover because the vehicle itself could be a target.

Once in the hotel in Tel Aviv where the president would meet with Mr. Netanyahu, we should find a designated shelter or safe room in the building, called “mamad.” Once the alarm stopped, we were told, it would mean the rocket had been intercepted or fallen elsewhere but we should still shelter in place for a few minutes to avoid falling debris. If we got separated from the president’s party or Air Force One took off without us, the small card had phone numbers for us to call.

Fortunately for Mr. Biden and his traveling party, the nervous anticipation proved worse than the reality that we would encounter during our short stay.

During his visit, the president urged Israelis not to let anger cloud their judgment and seemed to counsel restraint.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times
Mr. Biden and Rachel Edri, who was held hostage by Hamas, embraced on Wednesday during a meeting in Tel Aviv with emergency medical workers and survivors of the Hamas attacks.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

While we were zipped into Tel Aviv, the beachfront town looked much as it always does. There were plenty of heavily armed soldiers along the motorcade route, but there usually are anywhere a president travels. Israelis in shorts and T-shirts on a warm Mediterranean day stood along the road snapping pictures with their smartphones just as people typically do during a presidential visit.

For whatever reason, no air raid sirens went off in our hearing while Mr. Biden was on the ground. They sounded elsewhere in the country, we were told, and they sounded in Tel Aviv after we left. But Hamas evidently chose not to provoke the American president during his seven and a half hours in Israel.

The trip ended with another surprise. The president came back to the press cabin to speak with us on the record on the way home — something Mr. Biden had never done before during his presidency. (“You guys are such a pain in the neck,” he told us.)

Mr. Biden told reporters on Air Force One that he had persuaded the Egyptian government to allow 20 trucks of humanitarian aid into Gaza.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Wearing a light blue zip-up sweater and jeans, he acknowledged that the trip was a gamble, at least politically. Presidential trips are usually pre-scripted with certain outcomes. This one was a bit of a flyer in more ways than one.

But Mr. Biden seemed satisfied that he had accomplished what he wanted. “I thought it was worth taking the chance,” he said.

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