History of Presidential Aircraft and Air Force One

Updated on June 20, 2018
Click thumbnail to view full-size
A Presidential VC-25A flying over Mt. Rushmore.The presidential VC-137, tail number 26000, on display at Joint Base Andrews, MD, May 1998.  The public was allowed to look inside before the aircraft before it went to be put in the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio..Marine One flying over Kelly AFB, Texas, November 1981.An E-4A flying out of Kelly AFB, Texas, November 1981.  This USAF aircraft was carrying President Ronald Reagan so had the designation "Air Force One".A presidential C-135B, tail number 24126, at Andrews AFB.  It is a military version of the Boeing 707, circa 1983.A presidential VH-3D Sea King helicopter at Joint Base Andrews, MD, circa 1998.Presidential jetliners in the background on the tarmac at Andrews AFB, circa 1989.A VC-121E that served as a presidential aircraft for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and named by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower.A Presidential helicopter in flight.
A Presidential VC-25A flying over Mt. Rushmore.
A Presidential VC-25A flying over Mt. Rushmore. | Source
The presidential VC-137, tail number 26000, on display at Joint Base Andrews, MD, May 1998.  The public was allowed to look inside before the aircraft before it went to be put in the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio..
The presidential VC-137, tail number 26000, on display at Joint Base Andrews, MD, May 1998. The public was allowed to look inside before the aircraft before it went to be put in the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.. | Source
Marine One flying over Kelly AFB, Texas, November 1981.
Marine One flying over Kelly AFB, Texas, November 1981. | Source
An E-4A flying out of Kelly AFB, Texas, November 1981.  This USAF aircraft was carrying President Ronald Reagan so had the designation "Air Force One".
An E-4A flying out of Kelly AFB, Texas, November 1981. This USAF aircraft was carrying President Ronald Reagan so had the designation "Air Force One". | Source
A presidential C-135B, tail number 24126, at Andrews AFB.  It is a military version of the Boeing 707, circa 1983.
A presidential C-135B, tail number 24126, at Andrews AFB. It is a military version of the Boeing 707, circa 1983. | Source
A presidential VH-3D Sea King helicopter at Joint Base Andrews, MD, circa 1998.
A presidential VH-3D Sea King helicopter at Joint Base Andrews, MD, circa 1998. | Source
Presidential jetliners in the background on the tarmac at Andrews AFB, circa 1989.
Presidential jetliners in the background on the tarmac at Andrews AFB, circa 1989. | Source
A VC-121E that served as a presidential aircraft for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and named by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower.
A VC-121E that served as a presidential aircraft for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and named by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. | Source
A Presidential helicopter in flight.
A Presidential helicopter in flight. | Source

Background

“Air Force One” is the air traffic control call sign of a United States Air Force (USAF) aircraft carrying the President of the United States. A United States Marine Corps aircraft carrying the President has the call sign “Marine One”. A United States Navy aircraft carrying the President “Navy One”.

A fleet of aircraft is at the President’s disposal. The President usually uses the aircraft in the presidential fleet but on occasion the President flies in other aircraft. On these occasions aircraft outside the presidential fleet fly with the call sign “(Branch of Service) One”.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A RD-2 Douglas Dolphin.  The first aircraft to fly a sitting president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a RD-2 Douglas Dolphin.A Pan Am Boeing 314 "Yankee Clipper".  Another Pan Am Boeing 314 "Dixie Clipper", served as a presidential aircraft for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.A C-54.  The C-54 "Sacred Cow" transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference.  President Harry S. Truman created the United States Air Force aboard the "Sacred Cow" by signing the National Security Act  of 1947.
A RD-2 Douglas Dolphin.  The first aircraft to fly a sitting president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a RD-2 Douglas Dolphin.
A RD-2 Douglas Dolphin. The first aircraft to fly a sitting president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a RD-2 Douglas Dolphin. | Source
A Pan Am Boeing 314 "Yankee Clipper".  Another Pan Am Boeing 314 "Dixie Clipper", served as a presidential aircraft for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A Pan Am Boeing 314 "Yankee Clipper". Another Pan Am Boeing 314 "Dixie Clipper", served as a presidential aircraft for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. | Source
A C-54.  The C-54 "Sacred Cow" transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference.  President Harry S. Truman created the United States Air Force aboard the "Sacred Cow" by signing the National Security Act  of 1947.
A C-54. The C-54 "Sacred Cow" transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference. President Harry S. Truman created the United States Air Force aboard the "Sacred Cow" by signing the National Security Act of 1947. | Source

The Early Days

President Franklin D Roosevelt was the first president to fly in an airplane while in office.[i] The first aircraft to entere the presidential fleet was a RD-2 Douglas Dolphin. The Dolphin served as President Roosevelt’s transport until 1939. Then a Boeing 314 named Dixie Clipper served as the presidential plane. The RD-2 and Boeing 314 were amphibious aircraft. Pan Am personnel crewed the Dixie Clipper. The military and the Secret Service didn’t like the idea of a civilian airliner carrying the President. The Dixie Clipper was scrapped in 1950. A modified C-54 Skymaster, the Sacred Cow, transported President Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in February 1945. One of the Sacred Cow’s modifications was a retractable elevator to lift President Roosevelt in his wheelchair. When President Roosevelt died President Harry S. Truman continued to use the Sacred Cow as the President’s transport for two years. Then some C-118s, military versions of the DC-6, became the Presidential fleet. Under President Eisenhower four aircraft, 2 Lockheed VC-121E Constellations and 2 Aero Commanders, joined the Presidential fleet. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower named the Constellations Columbine II and Columbine III after the state flower of Colorado.[ii]


[i] Airplanes of the Past, United States Presidential & VIP Aircraft, Air Force One, Marine One, https://www.airplanesofthepast.com/united-states-presidential-aircraft.htm, last accessed 5/6/2018.

[ii] Airplanes of the Past, United States Presidential & VIP Aircraft, Air Force One, Marine One, https://www.airplanesofthepast.com/united-states-presidential-aircraft.htm, last accessed 5/6/2018.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A C-32A of the presidential fleet.An MV-22 Osprey, Bu Number 168332, at Dulles IAP, September 2017.  The MV-22s of HMX-1 has flown VIPs but for safety concerns has not, as of May 13, 2018, flown as "Marine One".The President & First Lady quarters in the cabin of a VC-27A.President Barack Obama aboard a C-32A, which gave it the radio call sign "Air Force One".A S-3 Viking flown by President George W. Bush, with the radio call sign "Navy One", landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln.  The US Navy retired this aircraft on 15 July 2003.  It is on display at the Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola, Florida.A presidential helicopter outside the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles IAP, VA, June 6, 2018.
A C-32A of the presidential fleet.
A C-32A of the presidential fleet. | Source
An MV-22 Osprey, Bu Number 168332, at Dulles IAP, September 2017.  The MV-22s of HMX-1 has flown VIPs but for safety concerns has not, as of May 13, 2018, flown as "Marine One".
An MV-22 Osprey, Bu Number 168332, at Dulles IAP, September 2017. The MV-22s of HMX-1 has flown VIPs but for safety concerns has not, as of May 13, 2018, flown as "Marine One". | Source
The President & First Lady quarters in the cabin of a VC-27A.
The President & First Lady quarters in the cabin of a VC-27A. | Source
President Barack Obama aboard a C-32A, which gave it the radio call sign "Air Force One".
President Barack Obama aboard a C-32A, which gave it the radio call sign "Air Force One". | Source
A S-3 Viking flown by President George W. Bush, with the radio call sign "Navy One", landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln.  The US Navy retired this aircraft on 15 July 2003.  It is on display at the Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola, Florida.
A S-3 Viking flown by President George W. Bush, with the radio call sign "Navy One", landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. The US Navy retired this aircraft on 15 July 2003. It is on display at the Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola, Florida. | Source
A presidential helicopter outside the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles IAP, VA, June 6, 2018.
A presidential helicopter outside the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles IAP, VA, June 6, 2018. | Source

Air Force One

The call sign “Air Force One’ was created after an incident in 1953 where the plane carrying President Eisenhower entered the same airspace as a commercial airliner. Both these aircraft had the same call signs.[i]

In 1958 three Boeing 707s entered the Presidential fleet. In October 1962 the USAF purchased a VC-137 Stratoliner as a Presidential aircraft. The Air Force designated this aircraft Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000.[ii] Designer Raymond Loewy designed SAM 26000’s interior and paint scheme. SAM 26000 is the first aircraft to have the familiar paint scheme of a Presidential jetliner. SAM 26000 served until 1998.[iii] On August 9, 1974 President Richard M. Nixon was flying in SAM 26000, call sign “Air Force One”. At noon President Nixon’s resignation became effective and President Gerald R. Ford assumed the presidency. SAM 26000’s pilot called in and had the aircraft’s designation changed.

VC-25As, modified Boeing 747-200Bs, joined the Presidential fleet in 1990. Unlike the civilian Boeing 747-200s the VC-25As have a self-contained baggage loader, front and aft air-stairs, and in-flight refueling capability.[iv] The first VC-25A to fly as “Air Force One” was tail number 28000. This happened on September 6, 1990 when it transported President George H. W. Bush from Washington, DC to Kansas. A second VC-25A, 29000, later joined the Presidential fleet. In November 1995 tail Number 29000 carried Presidents William Jefferson Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush to Israel for the funeral of murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. On September 11, 2001 tail numbers 29000 flew President George W. Bush from Florida to Washington, DC following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon. Tail number 28000 flew President Barrack Hussein Obama to Cuba. As of May 13, 2018, this was the only time a sitting U.S. president flew to Cuba.[v] These VC-25As are likely to be the primary jet transport for Presidents until the 2020s.[vi]

The current presidential fleet also includes four C-32As, a military version of the Boeing 757-200. These C-32As started service in June 1998.[vii] Their more common call sign is “Air Force Two”, the designation for the Vice-President. The C-25A only requires 5,000 feet of runway. The President can use a C-32A for trips to airports with runways too short for the VC-25s. The C-32A is a high standing aircraft which makes it easy to see under. This is an important security factor.[viii] The C-32A passenger cabin is divided into 4 sections. The communications center is in the forward area. The second section is a fully-enclosed stateroom for the primary passenger. The third section contains the conference and staff facilities. The rear section is a general seating area with 32 business-class seats.[ix]

The current Presidential fleet includes VH-3D Sea Kings, VH-60N White Hawks, and CH-46E Sea Knights. These aircraft belong to the Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1).[x] The Presidential fleet also includes MV-22 Ospreys. The tiltrotor Ospreys have flown Secret Service agents and presidential pets but has not been cleared to fly the President of the United States. President Barack Obama did fly in an Osprey in Iraq in 2008 when he was a presidential candidate.

When presidents are flying the plane that carries them are usually “Air Force One” or “Marine One”. There are exceptions. One May 1, 2003 a S-3 Viking, tail number 9387, had the designation “Navy One”. President George W. Bush flew the S-3 onto the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. After President Bush landed he made the controversial “Mission Accomplished” speech. President Bush wanted to fly an F/A-18 but the Secret Service would not allow the President to fly without Secret Service protection.


[i] Airplanes of the Past, United States Presidential & VIP Aircraft, Air Force One, Marine One, https://www.airplanesofthepast.com/united-states-presidential-aircraft.htm, last accessed 5/6/2018.

[ii] This is one of the ironic military and aviation terms. The Air Force also uses the term SAM for Surface to Air Missile.

[iii] Airplanes of the Past, United States Presidential & VIP Aircraft, Air Force One, Marine One, https://www.airplanesofthepast.com/united-states-presidential-aircraft.htm, last accessed 5/6/2018.

[iv] Air Force Fact Sheet, VC-25 – Air Force One, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104588/vc-25-air-force-one/, last accessed 5/13/2018.

[v] Air Force Fact Sheet, VC-25 – Air Force One, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104588/vc-25-air-force-one/, last accessed 5/13/2018. President Calvin Coolidge visited Cuba in 1928 but he didn’t fly.

[vi] Airplanes of the Past, United States Presidential & VIP Aircraft, Air Force One, Marine One, https://www.airplanesofthepast.com/united-states-presidential-aircraft.htm, last accessed 5/6/2018.

[vii] Airplanes of the Past, United States Presidential & VIP Aircraft, Air Force One, Marine One, https://www.airplanesofthepast.com/united-states-presidential-aircraft.htm, last accessed 5/6/2018.

[viii] C-32, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104518/c-32/, last accessed 5/13/2018.

[ix] C-32, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104518/c-32/, last accessed 5/13/2018.

[x] Airplanes of the Past, United States Presidential & VIP Aircraft, Air Force One, Marine One, https://www.airplanesofthepast.com/united-states-presidential-aircraft.htm, last accessed 5/6/2018.

© 2018 Robert Sacchi

Comments

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    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      6 days ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I am glad you found this article interesting. I know there is a common misconception that "Air Force 1" referred to the plane rather than the passenger. So I figured I should mention it.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      7 days ago from UK

      This is an interestingand very well-illustrated article. I always thought

      Airforce 1 referred to a single plane, not a fleet of planes.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 months ago

      Thank you for everything. Glad you find the article interesting.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      2 months ago from sunny Florida

      Very detailed once again. I know I will need to reread to fully take in all of the information. Angels are headed your way this evening ps

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 months ago

      Yes, he was an F-102 pilot.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      2 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      I also read recently that wherever the President goes, two Gulfstreams follow, they have the job of getting the President out if there's trouble.

      Apparently they are older than Airforce one and their Avionics aren't so easy to 'mess with' by jamming

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      2 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Robert

      Very interesting, I'm not surprised President Bush (Junior) wanted to fly the F18 he was a pilot after all

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 months ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I'm glad I was able to give you some good information.

    • profile image

      John M McNally 

      2 months ago

      I didn't know any of that and found it a most informative read. I thought there was only one Presidential plane not a whole fleet - now I know. Thanks.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 months ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 

      2 months ago from The High Seas

      Great opening lines, explaining the different call signs for the plane carrying the President of the USA. Had me right from the start.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 months ago

      The CAF is real active in Texas. I remember seeing one of their shows in Hondo.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      3 months ago from Houston, Texas

      I understand completely. We are fortunate that the local air shows are so near our home and are smaller in nature. It is easy to see it all in one day including the interior views of some of the aircraft. I got to see the type of airplane that my father would have jumped out of as a paratrooper during WWII.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 months ago

      Yes, It's a matter of spending an hour to see the inside of one plane miss seeing many others or an air demonstration.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      3 months ago from Houston, Texas

      That is too bad that you could not see the inside of the presidential airplanes but at least you found some photos for us. Long lines seldom interest me either. I can see why the lines would have been long. There would be much interest on the part of the public.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 months ago

      Yes, unfortunately the line was long so I passed. That's the paradox of the large military open houses. There is so much to see but so little time,

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      3 months ago from Houston, Texas

      It must have been fun to get to view the inside of one of these presidential designated airplanes. The pictures of the older planes along with the history was very interesting.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 months ago

      Thank you all for reading and commenting.

      Elijah - That's the spirit!

      FlourishAnyway - Your uncle had a very interesting job. He was the proverbial fly on the wall.

      Mary Norton - Yes, the movie Air Force One had a nice touch in changing an aircraft's call sign to Air Force One.

      Frank Atanacio - I'm glad you liked the pictures and information.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      3 months ago from Shelton

      Robert I did learn so much here.. not only am I fascinated with the photos but the educational words you so carefully wrote.. thank you for sharing

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      3 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I now understand the distinction around the President's carriers. I now know there's a whole fleet of them even one for their pets.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      3 months ago from USA

      You are a wealth of knowledge and this is an interesting topic area. My husband’s uncle was in the military and used to travel with the White House Communications Office with the President then towards the end of his career with the VP. He had no children so we inherited all his memorabilia and photos. Many of your photos remind me of his trips.

    • The0NatureBoy profile image

      Elijah A Alexander Jr 

      3 months ago from Washington DC

      Thanks for such detailed revealing of the the presidential crafts, it just might someday serve me. LOL I have been curious about how the presidential planes became designated.

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