10 Milestones in Air Force One History

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President Donald Trump recently announced that he had finalized a $3.9 billion deal with Boeing to provide two new Air Force Ones. Trump reportedly requested the planes be ready by 2021 for the beginning of his possible second term, although testing needed for the new aircraft could make that deadline tough to meet. Air Force One is way overdue for an update, as the current aircraft is based on a design last manufactured in 1991. Here’s a look at the history of the many aircraft that have carried U.S. presidents through the years, whether known by the iconic Air Force One call sign or the more bizarre name “Sacred Cow.”

 

10. Theodore Roosevelt is First President in Flight

Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to fly in an airplane, with this flight in 1910 in St. Louis.

Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to fly in a plane, with this flight in 1910 in St. Louis.

Who was the first president to fly in an airplane? That’s somewhat of a trick question. President Theodore Roosevelt went airborne in a primitive Wright Flyer on Oct. 11, 1910 in St. Louis at a county fair. But he had been out of office for about 18 months. Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the first sitting president to fly in an airplane, in 1943, according to GlobalSecurity.org.

 

9. FDR Gets First Presidential Plane … Top Speed: 136 mph

Presidential aircraft have come a long way since the time when this "amphibious flying boat" was designated for FDR's use. Credit: Popular Mechanics/Fair Use

Presidential aircraft have come a long way since the time when this “amphibious flying boat” was provided for FDR’s use. Credit: Popular Mechanics/Fair Use

In 1933, the U.S. Navy obtained the first plane built specifically for a president. The Douglas Dolphin RD-2 is described in literature as an “amphibious flying boat.” Not the most reassuring description of an aircraft in an era when air travel was still considered quite dangerous. There is no record of FDR ever flying on this aircraft, which Popular Science at the time called the “Mayflower of the Air,” with a top speed of 136 mph. Why did Roosevelt never fly in the plane? Until at least the early 1940s, there was great debate about whether it was even appropriate for a president to fly, given the dangers.

 

8. Before Air Force One, the President Had ‘Sacred Cow’

The Douglas VC-54C "Sacred Cow" made for FDR, on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The Douglas VC-54C “Sacred Cow” built for FDR, on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Credit: U.S. Air Force

When FDR attended the Casablanca Conference in Morocco in 1943, he took a commercial plane (yes, those were much simpler times). Realizing that a president flying on commercial airliners might not be a good idea, military officials set about procuring a dedicated presidential aircraft. Later that year, they presented a heavily modified C-87A VIP transport plane, with the clever name “Guess Where II,” for the president. But the Secret Service immediately nixed the plane, which had a history of problems — prone to crashes and engine failures, gas fumes in the cockpit — not suitable for any aircraft, let alone one carrying the president.

So the Secret Service decided to obtain its own presidential plane for the president. Delivered to Washington, D.C., in 1944, the Douglas VC-54C Skymaster featured numerous modifications, including an elevator to lift to lift the crippled president into and out of the plane. Roosevelt flew in the plane, dubbed the “Sacred Cow,” only once before his sudden death in 1945. The aircraft served as the official presidential transport the first two years of the Truman Administration — fittingly, while on board the Sacred Cow in 1947, Truman signed the legislation creating the U.S. Air Force.

Oh, as for the Sacred Cow name, seems some smart-aleck Washington reporters invented that term, and it stuck, much to the dismay of officials; otherwise, the plane might have been known by the more dignified name, “Flying White House.” Today, the aircraft is housed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

 

7. Air Force One Name Adopted After Scary 1953 Incident

The first aircraft designated Air Force One, the Columbine II, during a 1990 flight. © Ron Woods/USAF

The first aircraft designated Air Force One, the Columbine II, during a 1990 flight. © Ron Woods/USAF

There’s a common misconception that Air Force One is a specific plane. Air Force One is actually the designation for any plane carrying the current U.S. president. This designation stemmed from a scary 1953 incident; as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s plane, Air Force 8610, flew over New York City, air traffic controllers confused it with a commercial flight, Eastern Airlines 8610. Both planes were inadvertently sent into the same airspace. The Air Force One designation was adopted thereafter, but did not become official until 1962, according to the White House Museum.

In an interesting aside, reports surfaced in 2015 that the original Air Force One sat abandoned and deteriorating at a tiny airport in the Arizona desert. Seems the former owner, who bought the plane from the U.S. Air Force in 1970 to use as a cropduster (!), did not realize he owned a piece of American history.

 

6. Eisenhower’s Plane Gets Phone, Other Amenities

President Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyd the latest in air travel luxuries, in the massive Lockheed VC-121E Super Constellation, although he also flew in the smallest Air Force One ever, the Aero Commander U-4B (inset).

President Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed the latest in air travel luxuries, in the massive Lockheed VC-121E Super Constellation, although he also flew in the smallest Air Force One ever, the Aero Commander U-4B (inset).

As the 1950s dawned, aircraft became more advanced and luxurious, and that proved especially true for presidential aircraft. President Dwight D. Eisenhower primarily used a couple of massive Lockheed C-121 Constellations, complete with phone service, Teletype, marble flooring and sleeping berths. (The first of those planes to enter service, named “Columbine II,” is the aforementioned plane currently in need of a new home.) However, Ike also used the smallest Air Force One ever, an Aero Commander U-4B (see inset photo above), for short trips during his second term.

 

5. JFK Gives Air Force One Its Modern Look

President John F. Kennedy, shown here in California in 1962, did not like the color scheme on Air Force One. He found a designer who gave the plane the familiar blue-and-white colors it has today. Credit: JFK Presidential Library and Museum

President John F. Kennedy, here debarking in California in 1962, did not like the color scheme on this version of Air Force One. He found a designer who gave the plane the familiar blue-and-white colors it has today. Credit: JFK Presidential Library and Museum

Today, the white and blue colors of Air Force One are instantly recognizable. The original paint scheme looked nothing like that, with the USAF composing a design using red and metallic gold colors. Some in Washington, including President John F. Kennedy, thought the design appeared more fit for a monarch. Acting on a suggestion from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, JFK commissioned French designer Raymond Loewy to find a design for both the interior and exterior of the plane. Loewy drew inspiration from the Declaration of Independence — with the “United States of America” lettering spaced widely in a typeface known as Caslon — to design the lettering on the plane. He provided new colors — slate blue, a traditional presidential color, and cyan, representing the present and future. He also added a presidential seal near the nose and an American flag on the tail.

 

4. Two Planes Serve Seven Presidents Over 30 Years

President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, depart Air Force One during his historic trip to China in 1972. Note "The Spirit of 76" logo Nixon had added to the nose of the plane for the upcoming bicentennial.

President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, depart Air Force One during his historic trip to China in 1972. Note “The Spirit of ’76” logo Nixon had added to the plane’s nose for the upcoming bicentennial.

For the many planes either proposed or actually used in the first quarter-century of presidential flight, a basic design introduced in 1962 would serve seven presidents, all the way to 1990. JFK became the first president to fly on the new Boeing 707 VC-137 Stratoliner, in 1962 (the first presidential plane with jet engines). It bore the designation Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000. That plane served as the primary presidential aircraft until 1972, when it was replaced by another VC-137, known as SAM 27000. That served as the primary AF1 until 1990, when a new design entered service.

 

3. Photo Shoot Flight Terrifies New Yorkers

The plane designated as Air Force One when the president is aboard flies over the Statue of Liberty in a photo shoot that alarmed millions of New Yorkers. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The plane designated as Air Force One when the president is aboard flies over the Statue of Liberty in a 2009 photo shoot that alarmed millions of New Yorkers. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Three months after President Barack Obama took office in 2009, a training mission and photo shoot involving the presidential aircraft went bust. On April 27, the modified Boeing 747 that serves as the backup Air Force One flew low over the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline, accompanied by an F-16 fighter jet. The flyover came without warning, and many New Yorkers, frightened by the eerie resemblance to the events of 9/11, fled in panic from office buildings. A White House official resigned in the furor following the incident.

 

2. AF1 is Well Protected … And Expensive to Operate

Air Force One has over 4,000 feet of living space.

Air Force One flies over Mount Rushmore in February 2003. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Today, the presidential air fleet has two Boeing 747-200B VC-25A aircraft (designated SAM 28000 and 29000). The aircraft are maintained by the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. Many people have heard of the incredible high-tech security features and procedures aboard the aircraft; here’s a revealing behind-the-scenes collection of photos from a National Geographic Channel feature on the plane.

Less well known is the staggering cost needed to operate Air Force One. Information obtained by Judicial Watch in late 2014 under the Freedom of Information Act show AF1 costs $206,337 per hour of flight time.

 

1. New Air Force One Could Be Ready by 2021

An artist rendering of what the new Air Force One might look like. Credit: Boeing

The two aging aircraft currently serving as Air Force One are based on a 47-year-old design last manufactured in 1991. Maintenance has become so difficult, that spare parts are sometimes stripped off old airliners parked in the desert. With that in mind, in January 2015 the Air Force announced that the Boeing 747-8 has been chosen as the frame for the next generation of Air Force One. As noted earlier, President Trump and Boeing finalized a $3.9 billion deal to purchase two planes, and he requested they be ready by 2021. That is three years earlier than the original replacement plan, and it remains to be seen whether the Air Force can finish testing of the new models in time.

Slideshow photo credit: USAF/Bobby Jones

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.