I grew up with brothers who were crazy about airplanes. I was (still am) crazy about history, so by default, I’ve learned to love aspects of aviation history. This month we’re talking about Presidential Trivia, and I thought it might be fun to round up some facts about the planes that have transported U.S. Presidents – aircraft commonly called “Air Force One.”
From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency and onward, U.S. Presidents have used aircraft to travel domestically and internationally. Here are six historical things to know about presidents and aviation history:
The First President To Fly
For centuries, mankind wanted to fly, experimented with flying machines, and dreamed of soaring to distant lands; but it wasn’t until 1903 when the Wright Brothers made a successful powered flight that the dream became reality. At first, flying was treated like a novelty – something for adventurers.
So, it’s not surprising that one of America’s most adventurous leaders was the first president to take a ride in an aircraft. In 1910 – after his executive terms had ended – Teddy Roosevelt went flying with pilot Arch Hoxsey in a Wright Flyer at a county fair in Missouri.
It would take several more decades of development before a president in office would fly. Interestingly, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first to fly while president – making it easy to remember the presidents who pioneered in American aviation.
2. The “Prop Planes”
No, we don’t mean fake planes used in movies. It’s pilot talk for “propeller planes” and that’s what was used prior to the jet age.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled overseas to meet with Allied leaders during World War II. In January 1943, he flew to Casablanca aboard a civilian Boeing B-314 Clipper, nicknamed the “Dixie Clipper.” Realizing the president would travel again, the U.S. Army Air Corps ordered a specialized plane for the president in 1942; this Douglas C-54 Skymaster was based on the military’s DC-4. The press called the new presidential plane “The Sacred Cow” and the aircraft was equipped with radio communications for the president and a specialized wheelchair lift to help Roosevelt enter the plane easily.
During Harry Truman‘s administration, the U.S. Air Force was officially created and would be in charge of presidential protection and transportation in the air for long flights. Truman’s plane was a modified C-118 Liftmaster, nicknamed “Independence,” and it was the first presidential plane to receive a distinctive patriotic paint job.
Dwight D. Eisenhower‘s administration established the call-sign “Air Force One.” One of Eisenhower’s aircraft was the four prop Lockheed C-121 Constellation which was nicknamed “Columbine.” During this period, air to ground telephone and an air to ground teletype machine were added to Air Force One’s communication technology. Then under Eisenhower, the presidential planes entered the jet age.
3. The Jets
In 1959, Eisenhower took a nineteen day goodwill tour, visiting eleven Asian countries, and flying 22,000 miles in the new Boeing 707 jet designated Air Force One.
During the Kennedy Administration, the president started making regular international trips aboard a Boeing C-137 Stratoline, which was a modified long-range Boeing 707. The basic model of this jet was used by or available to all presidents from Kennedy to Clinton. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy insisted that the original paint scheme for Air Force One was too “royal” and not keeping with American tradition; the president met with industrial designer Raymond Loewry who created the striking blue, presidential seal, and American flag design. The font used on the plane’s letter was inspired by the bold penmanship on the Declaration of Independence.
In 1972, a new version of Air Force One – another modified C-137 – was used by Nixon, though the plane from Kennedy’s era continued as the “back-up aircraft.” When Nixon resigned, he flew back to California (his homestate) aboard this plane, requesting air traffic control to change the callsign when he knew Gerald Ford had been sworn in as president. (Why? See section 4). After safely transporting the former president to California, the aircraft returned to executive service and was used until the George Bush administration when it was retired. This particular plane is now on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. (And yes, I have seen it!)
In 1990, the first of the presidential planes based on the Boeing 747 was delivered and put into service. This model continues in use to the present day (2018).
4. Air Force One – It’s A Name & A Plane
Technically speaking, “Air Force One” is a callsign used by any airplane the U.S. President is aboard. It was created after some air traffic confusion and danger to the president during the Eisenhower years.
However, Air Force One is also the term used generically when speaking about the president’s plane, though by Air Force technicality it is not Air Force One unless the president is on the aircraft.
5. When Johnson Became President
On November 22, 1963, Air Force One took President and First Lady Kennedy to Texas. The plane created the backdrop for photos as the couple greeted well-wishers and began their day in the public’s view. Hours later, President Kennedy was dead, and Vice President Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One. That plane carried the new president and Kennedy’s body back to Washington for the funeral.
Throughout presidential history, the various planes designed “Air Force One” have witnessed historic moments – some happy, some tragic. But that day was the first and only day that a president has been sworn into executive office on an aircraft.
6. 9/11 – When Air Force One Was The Executive Command Center
Another historic moment against the backdrop of a tragic time in U.S. History occurred on September 11, 2001. President George W. Bush had been visiting a school in Florida when he received word about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. His staff and secret service rushed him to the airport and aboard Air Force One. Unsure about the possibility of future attacks or if terrorists were seeking the president, the pilots pointed Air Force One into the wild blue yonder, hoping for airborne safety. Air Force One is equipped for in-flight refueling, defense systems, and in-flight communication connecting to just about anywhere on the ground. There were some tense moments when an unidentified aircraft flew near, refusing to respond – but later it was discovered that plane had had radio trouble.
On that day, all aircraft over the United States were grounded, except Air Force One. Through many tense hours, the president received reports, planned his address, and communicated with other leaders from the safety of the presidential plane.
The history of presidents and their airplanes/jets is one piece of the history of America’s global influence. Air Force One has allowed the president to travel anywhere in the world. It has served as the backdrop for important meetings. The aircraft called Air Force One have witnessed joyous and tragic moments in American history, and on the fateful day in 2001, Air Force One protected the president.
Flown by skilled pilots of the U.S. Air Force, Air Force One is and remains a symbol of America at airports and on runways all over the world.
P.S. Have you seen one of the “Air Force One” planes in service or in a museum?