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Aboard Air Force One • I hitched a ride with President Barack Obama on Thursday to fly to Utah. It's everything you'd expect.

Comfy, wide-leather seats with to-die-for legroom.

Food aplenty, all served on china with the presidential seal — which, by the way, was even etched on the glass of my ice-cold Diet Coke.

There are even complimentary toothbrushes and toothpaste in the restroom to freshen up.

It's also got to be the safest way to fly.

Yeah, Air Force One is definitely a terrorist target but also probably the most protected plane ever, and you have to feel comforted that the guy in charge of the world's largest military is riding up front.

When the White House announced earlier this week that Obama would visit Utah for the first time as president, I figured it was a good chance to check off that long-awaited bucket-list item. Not that it's easy to nab a seat on the "presidential aircraft," as all the napkins on board say. The travel pool — a group of journalists that shadows the president wherever he goes — is small, in this case, only 13 people.

As a member of the White House Correspondents' Association, I've taken plenty of turns in the in-town pool following the president around in the Washington region for a day every couple of months. We jokingly call it the court-ordered community service of D.C. journalists.

Some days you're motorcading to a speech somewhere, other times stuck in a van while the president golfs or hits a fancy restaurant. I've spent far too much time in the Andrews Air Force Base food court on beautiful Saturdays while Obama hits the links.

But riding Air Force One makes up for it.

Having pestered the right people and lucked into grabbing the empty radio-pool seat for the flight to Kentucky and then Utah, I went about asking journalist friends for advice. Can I take pictures? Is there Internet? Can I call my mom from the plane? No, no, and no. Oh well.

Thursday morning, a car picked me up for the short ride to Andrews. Then I took a shuttle to what essentially was a small airport terminal. It was sort of like flying commercial: They check your name and ID, you take out your laptop and send your bags through the machine. You still have to take off your belt and shoes.

There's also a second, individual screening in which an agent wands you with another metal detector while a bomb-sniffing dog tours through the line of luggage. An hour and 20 minutes later, when we were supposed to be taxiing on our way to Kentucky, we finally boarded Air Force One.

Where we waited. And waited. And waited.

It seems there was this matter of a preliminary deal with Iran over restrictions to its nuclear program that had thrown a curve into the president's schedule.

Nearly an hour after we were supposed to be in the sky over America's heartland, the stewards offered us lunch — a cilantro steak quesadilla, chips with salsa and guacamole and chocolate chip cookies, all on nice china. I was surprised the little salt and pepper shakers didn't include the presidential seal.

When I finished, a steward whisked away the tray and brought a moist, hot towel. It was lemon scented.

This is the only way to fly ­— and we weren't even off the ground yet.

Two hours had ticked by with no sign of the president. I asked to tour the plane. Nope.

There's probably a good reason they don't let the press just wander around in such a sophisticated aircraft with all its secret bells and whistles. Air Force One, for the record, isn't a specific plane. The call sign refers to any aircraft the president is aboard. But in this case it was one of the regularly used presidential planes, a specially modified Boeing 747.

Aside from its iconic blue-and-white paint job and the "United States of America" stretching across its shiny top, the exterior view is much the same as a regular 747 that could be parked at Salt Lake City International Airport.

Inside, it's a different story.

There are no long rows of seats, no curtain to separate first class from the masses. There are real doors, real walls, and real space to stretch out.

The press cabin, near the rear of the craft, includes 14 seats.

The Secret Service takes up another compartment in front of the journalists, and to the left, divided by a wall, sit other Air Force personnel. The president has his own office, conference room and even a bedroom near the front of the plane.

Nearly three hours late for takeoff, Obama's motorcade finally pulled up. And we were off.

Unlike a commercial flight, no one asked us to turn off our phones, shut down laptops or move our bags. As the plane left the ground, a White House staffer scurried through the cabin to fetch a revised schedule from the printer.

Landing in Kentucky, we rushed into vans to join the 20-something vehicle motorcade to tour a tech company. Louisville was a blur as we sped down a closed off freeway ­— something that will pain some Utahns as well. Within two hours, Air Force One was on its way to Utah.

The White House and the Air Force grasp that flying on this craft is a unique experience for passengers. When I first arrived at my seat — wrongly labeled for the Salt Lake "City" Tribune ­— I found a certificate signed by the "Presidential Pilot" that I had flown on Air Force One as a guest of the president. "Guest" might be too strong a word but it still will look nice in a frame someday.

And then there's the hazing.

I was warned that the pool photojournalists love to play pranks on the newbies, but as a starry-eyed first-timer, I still fell for it when a photographer from a not-to-be-named major newspaper told me I had to run all the way back into the terminal to check my bag.

The White House press wrangler caught me half-way there, smiled and reminded me that Air Force One didn't have baggage handlers. At least not on an overnight trip.

Just to be clear, I didn't fly on the taxpayer's dime. I charged it to my boss. Thanks, Terry (Orme, the Tribune editor and publisher).

Journalists who fly aboard Air Force One pay essentially what you would for a comparable commercial flight bought the day before takeoff. It's not cheap ­— around $2,000 — which is why I figured it was OK to nab some boxes of M&Ms, napkins and, yes, a toothbrush.