• Last updated on November 10, 2022

Any one of several different aircraft on which the president of the United States is traveling.

The Origins of a Presidential Plane

The first presidential plane was not called Air Force One, because an independent air force did not exist until 1947. Had the first presidential plane, delivered to the U.S. Navy on June 6, 1933, to transport President Franklin D. Roosevelt, been similarly named in 1933, it might have been called Navy One. This plane, a Douglas Dolphin Amphibian accommodating five passengers, served as the presidential plane until December 4, 1939.

Although Roosevelt often flew on commercial aircraft, the U.S. Army Air Force contracted with Douglas Aircraft to build a C-54 Skymaster to serve as the presidential plane. With a C-54A fuselage and C-54B wings, this VC-54C became known as the Sacred Cow and was equipped with a secret elevator extending from the aircraft’s belly to lift the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt into the plane.

The First <i>Air Force One</i>

The Sacred Cow served President Harry S. Truman for the first two years of his administration. In 1947, on board the Sacred Cow, Truman signed an act creating an independent U.S. Air Force. After the Sacred Cow was retired in 1961, it was obtained by the U.S. Air Force Museum in 1985. Following a ten-year restoration effort, it was put on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, along with several of its successors.

The Second <i>Air Force One</i>

Douglas Aircraft also built the next Air Force One, a VC-118, commissioned into service on July 4, 1947. The aircraft was also known as the Independence, after Truman’s Missouri hometown. At a cost of more than $1 million, the VC-118 was a military version of a Douglas DC-6. It carried Truman to Wake Island to discuss with General Douglas MacArthur the escalating problems in Korea. The VC-118 was retired from presidential service in 1953 and from Air Force duty in 1965.

Subsequent <i>Air Force One</i> Planes

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s aircraft was the C-121 military version of the Lockheed Constellation, affectionately known as the “Connie” in commercial transport. This presidential plane, named the Columbine III, was Eisenhower’s third Connie. He had flown two C-121’s as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. The Columbine III left presidential service when Eisenhower left office in 1961 and was retired to the Air Force Museum in 1966.

President John F. Kennedy’s first presidential plane, a Douglas C-118, was the first plane to display the distinctive presidential paint scheme. It was followed by Special Air Missions (SAM) 26000, the first plane actually to use the call sign Air Force One when the president was on board. SAM 26000, a Boeing VC-137C, the military version of a 707, was the first jet designed exclusively for presidential use. Purchased in 1962 at a cost of $36.6 million, with its distinctive blue-and-white color scheme, the airplane became a symbol of American power.

SAM 26000 served as the presidential plane during some of the most important events in twentieth century American history. It carried Kennedy to Berlin for his famous speech at the Berlin Wall, to Dallas on November 22, 1963, and then home again, for the last time, only a few hours later. Before the plane could take off on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president.

Johnson reconfigured SAM 26000 to suit his preferences. Because he wanted to see what others were doing, he jettisoned wooden cabin partitions in favor of clear plastic. He also required a chair and desk that could be raised or lowered by pushing a button. SAM 26000 carried Johnson to Vietnam at the height of the war, a destination shared by President Richard M. Nixon on his first SAM 26000 trip.

Soon after Nixon took office, SAM 26000 went back to Boeing for a complete overhaul, which included the removal of the taping system that recorded all incoming and outgoing calls on the flying White House. Beginning in 1970, SAM 26000 was used on thirteen secret missions to meet with North Vietnamese officials. In 1972, Nixon flew the plane on his historic mission to normalize relations with China. In 1971, Nixon renamed SAM 26000 The Spirit of 1976. In December, 1972, a similar 707, with a cost of $36.2 million and the tail number 27000, took over as the presidential plane. SAM 26000 served as the backup presidential aircraft for five more presidents: Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton. When, in January, 1998, Clinton’s 747 Air Force One 28000 ran off a runway in Champaign, Illinois, SAM 26000 was sent to fetch the president, once again becoming Air Force One. SAM 26000 served for thirty-six years and retired to the U.S. Air Force Museum in 1998 with its last flight on May 19.

Other Presidential Aircraft

Because the call sign Air Force One is used to identify whatever plane is carrying the president, many less well-known aircraft have served as Air Force One. A Beech VC-6A turboprop transported Johnson from Austin, Texas, to his family ranch. Eisenhower used an Aero Commander U-4B twin prop, the smallest Air Force One. Johnson used a T-39A Sabreliner in Texas. A VC-140B Jetstar carried presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. All have retired to the U.S. Air Force Museum. Other aircraft available for use by the president can serve as Air Force One, should the president be on board. The fleet includes five 707’s, several C-9’s and Gulfstreams, all based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Marine One is the name of the Marine helicopter that lands on the White House lawn to ferry the president literally from the doorstep.

The Modern <i>Air Force One</i>

The modern primary presidential plane, a VC-25A, is not one, but two, Boeing 747’s, with the tail numbers 28000 and 29000. Deployed on September 6, 1990, and March 26, 1991, at an ultimate cost of $626 million for the two planes, spare parts, and a hangar, the planes are marvels of modern technology and comfort. The VC-25A has self-contained baggage loaders and front and back stairs. It has a range of 9,600 statute miles, or 8,348 nautical miles, but is capable of being refueled in flight. With a wingspan of 195.7 feet, it has a maximum takeoff weight of 833,000 pounds. It can operate at altitudes as high as 45,100 feet and attain speeds of 701 miles per hour. Four General Electric jet engines provide the thrust for the 231.8-foot-long aircraft. The VC-25A has armor that protects it from nuclear explosions and the ensuing electromagnetic pulses. It has jamming systems to deflect antiaircraft missile attacks and can make evasive maneuvers to avoid enemy aircraft. It has at least eighty-seven telephones and sixteen video monitors and can carry two thousand meals. It can stay aloft for a week. It has seven bathrooms, a bedroom suite for the president, and full office facilities. It has a total capacity of 102, with 26 crew.

The presidential seal is emblazoned on many items, such as the door, seats, blankets, glasses, silverware, notepads, and boxes of cigarettes, before these were banned during the Reagan administration. Guests aboard Air Force One are presented with a certificate upon deplaning attesting to the fact they were passengers on the presidential plane.

Extraordinary Plane, Ordinary Problems

For all its modern marvels and protections against attack, Air Force One must fly in crowded airspace and deal with commonplace aviation problems. On May 27, 1997, Air Force One and a United Parcel Service 747 had a near-midair collision, coming within 500 vertical feet of each other when mandatory ATC separations were not maintained. In 1995, an investigation by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation into bogus parts on commercial jetliners led to the conviction of emergency-oxygen and fire-suppression equipment suppliers for Air Force One. In 1997, Air Force One was inspected for center-wing tank problems after the explosion of TWA 800, an earlier model 747. In 1998, Air Force One repeatedly disappeared from the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control radar screens.

As Air Force One is not safe from aviation problems, neither is it immune from bad press. When, on May 18, 1993, Clinton idled Air Force One on a Los Angeles International Airport tarmac while receiving a haircut from a Hollywood hairstylist, the negative publicity about the misuse of Air Force One was blistering.

<i>Air Force One</i> in Film

In 1997, Air Force One won a better place in Hollywood with the release of the blockbuster action film of the same name, filmed in cooperation with the U.S. Air Force and starring actor and real-life pilot Harrison Ford as the U.S. president. Audiences were treated to a glimpse inside the world’s most famous aircraft. The filmmakers improved upon reality by adding a presidential escape pod, an oversized conference room, and a virtual arsenal of weaponry that does not actually exist on the real Air Force One. The weapons and vehicles that the Secret Service uses to protect the president are actually carried on support aircraft, one of which arrives well in advance of Air Force One to complete security arrangements.

Bibliography
  • Francillon, Rene J. McDonald Douglas Aircraft Since 1920. Rev. ed. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1988. A reference series detailing virtually every Douglas aircraft, including the presidential planes.
  • Schiavo, Mary. Flying Blind, Flying Safe. New York: Avon (Hearst), 1998. Describes investigating bogus aircraft parts cases, including the Air Force One case.
  • TerHorst, Jerald F., and Ralph Albertazzie. The Flying White House: The Story of Air Force One. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979. The story of earlier Air Force One aircraft.

Air Force, U.S.

Airplanes

Military flight

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