How Trump's secret trip to Iraq became not-so-secret

It was a crisp winter morning in Sheffield, England, when amateur photographer and plane enthusiast Alan Mel...

Posted: Dec 29, 2018 7:20 AM
Updated: Dec 29, 2018 7:20 AM

It was a crisp winter morning in Sheffield, England, when amateur photographer and plane enthusiast Alan Meloy looked out his kitchen window and noticed a large trail in the sky. He didn't know he was about to accidentally help uncover a highly sensitive, secret presidential trip to a conflict zone.

About six hours before Meloy's discovery, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump were quietly whisked out of the White House under the cover of darkness on Christmas night for a trip to Iraq.

Air Force One

Aircraft

Armed forces

Aviation and aerospace industry

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Celebrities

Continents and regions

Donald Trump

Government and public administration

Government bodies and offices

Iraq

Melania Trump

Middle East

Middle East and North Africa

Military

Military aircraft

Political Figures - US

Politics

US federal government

White House

"I literally stepped out, and I could see a trail coming towards me and thought let's have a look at what's on the end of that. And then I looked through the viewfinder and thought this is worth photographing, it's not just a normal airliner," Meloy told CNN.

It was that moment that the almost-retired IT project manager, who has been spotting planes for 40 years and enjoys keeping an eye on the skies, knew he was looking at something unique when he saw a distinct color scheme on the plane.

"I was absolutely amazed when that came past...I knew it was one of the two VC-25s," Meloy told CNN. "I had no idea who was on it, in my mind I was thinking it must be someone pretty important."

The VC-25 is a modified Boeing 747-200 used to fly the President of the United States. Only two exist in the world and alternate as "Air Force One."

The plane, which normally flies under the callsign "AF1," had already sparked the interest of online aviation enthusiasts like "CivMilAir," a popular plane tracking enthusiast based in the UK, when it showed up on the map under the callsign "RCH358" or "Reach 358." "Reach" is used by the military to designate cargo planes. The plane maintained an altitude of about 31,000 feet as it flew across the UK, according to flight logs.

It wasn't until Meloy snapped the picture of the plane that showed "Reach 358" was in fact "Air Force One" flying in disguise, except to the naked eye. He went online to post the picture to his Flickr account and see if anyone else had noticed the aircraft. While some online were intrigued and watching RCH358 others were skeptical, telling Meloy "no it's not Air Force One, it's got a different callsign!" he says.

"So all I said was I know what I've seen, it's a VC-25 there's only two of those in the world -- that's all I can tell you. There's my photograph." Meloy says he didn't want to start any speculation.

The photo picked up steam online and Twitter was soon on fire with speculation that Trump was heading to Afghanistan or Iraq.

A few hours after Meloy spotted the plane through his Canon 7D from around 25 miles away, "Reach 358" secretly landed at Al Asad Airbase just west of Baghdad before the President and first lady met with troops for nearly three hours. Even Trump remarked at the steps of secrecy taken to ensure the safety.

"If you had seen what we had to go through with the darkened plane, with all windows closed, with no lights on whatsoever anywhere. Pitch black. I have never seen anything like it," Trump said while speaking to reporters on base in Iraq. The trip had been in the works for "three to four weeks" Trump said.

Former Secret Service Agent Jonathan Wackrow, who has helped coordinate conflict zone trips for multiple protectees, including a trip of then-President Barack Obama to Afghanistan, says the spotting of Air Force One and Twitter chatter is not a security breach, but is concerning and a lesson to be learned.

"In the age of social media, this highlights a new vulnerability that the Secret Service and military have to be super mindful of in the future," Wackrow says. "You're charting new territory with the inclusion of social media from a threat perspective and from an awareness perspective, and future planning is going to address that."

On Christmas Day, the normal 13-person press pool was assembled quietly and sworn to secrecy -- a long-held tradition and agreement between the White House and Washington bureau chiefs that reporters won't report on secret overseas trips until the White House deems it safe to report, either once the trip is almost complete or the President is wheels up back to the United States.

As the buzz picked up on Twitter and it was becoming more apparent that Trump was heading to the Middle East, the secret embargo was lifted, and reporters struggling to get internet connections were finally allowed to file, confirming many 'avgeeks' suspicions of a secret presidential trip.

"Reach 358" departed Al Asad Airbase for Joint Base Andrews by way of Ramstein Air Base moments after reporters were able to file. It returned to Andrews from Ramstein under the callsign "Air Force One," according to flight logs.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 34622

Reported Deaths: 1215
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds269748
DeSoto181818
Madison138236
Jones117349
Harrison104014
Rankin103515
Neshoba102274
Lauderdale94281
Forrest93943
Scott79215
Jackson72717
Washington64310
Copiah63115
Leake61320
Lee58621
Holmes57341
Oktibbeha56828
Wayne55416
Warren55320
Yazoo5436
Grenada5357
Lowndes52613
Leflore52256
Lincoln50935
Lamar5027
Pike47020
Sunflower4528
Lafayette4374
Monroe43635
Covington4195
Panola3996
Bolivar38018
Attala37524
Simpson3733
Newton35710
Adams34019
Pontotoc3266
Tate32313
Marion31312
Claiborne29310
Chickasaw29219
Winston28711
Pearl River27632
Noxubee2758
Marshall2693
Jasper2676
Clay25511
Union23811
Smith23412
Walthall2267
Coahoma2156
Clarke21425
Lawrence1992
Yalobusha1938
Kemper18014
Carroll17311
Tallahatchie1664
Humphreys15910
Montgomery1493
Calhoun1475
Tippah14411
Itawamba1418
Hancock13813
Webster12811
Tunica1193
Jefferson1173
Jefferson Davis1164
Prentiss1123
Greene10810
Amite1063
George1023
Wilkinson959
Tishomingo921
Quitman891
Alcorn852
Perry764
Choctaw754
Stone732
Franklin492
Benton420
Sharkey420
Issaquena101
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 49892

Reported Deaths: 1077
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson6030162
Mobile4418137
Montgomery4339109
Tuscaloosa254448
Madison19078
Marshall186611
Shelby150924
Lee149437
Morgan12205
Baldwin111410
Walker105127
Elmore98919
Dallas9639
Franklin92216
Etowah88214
DeKalb8416
Chambers65727
Russell6570
Autauga65313
Butler64328
Tallapoosa61669
Unassigned58626
Limestone5741
Houston5526
Cullman5395
Lauderdale5376
Lowndes48022
St. Clair4692
Colbert4656
Pike4595
Escambia4528
Calhoun4365
Coffee4074
Covington39911
Jackson3742
Bullock37010
Barbour3672
Dale3621
Talladega3497
Hale33722
Marengo33011
Wilcox2968
Clarke2946
Winston2893
Chilton2872
Sumter28512
Blount2731
Pickens2556
Monroe2492
Marion24514
Randolph2449
Conecuh2277
Perry2091
Bibb2081
Macon2069
Choctaw20212
Greene1928
Henry1433
Crenshaw1273
Washington1277
Lawrence1170
Cherokee1127
Geneva920
Lamar811
Fayette781
Clay742
Coosa621
Cleburne411
Out of AL00
Tupelo
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 94° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 82°
Columbus
Clear
75° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 75°
Oxford
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 73°
Starkville
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 73°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather