History of Presidential Aircraft and Air Force One - Owlcation - Education
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History of Presidential Aircraft and Air Force One

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”.

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.

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. First Lady Melania Trump flew in a Osprey from Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, DC to Joint Base Langley-Eustis Hampton, Virginia on December 12, 2018.

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

Robert Sacchi (author) on December 10, 2018:

Yes, it was appropriate they flew his body on a presidential jet. Thank you for sharing these details.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 10, 2018:

Our recently deceased former President George H.W. Bush and his entire family were flown from Houston on one of those airplanes, renamed of course, so that he would lie in state in the capitol building and then have a funeral in the national cathedral. They were once again flown back to Houston for the funeral here and then a train ride up to College Station for his burial. It seems fitting that his last flight was on that airplane that he at one time rode in when it was called Air Force One when he was the current President of the United States.

Robert Sacchi (author) on August 14, 2018:

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.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 13, 2018:

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 (author) on June 20, 2018:

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

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 20, 2018:

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 (author) on June 11, 2018:

Yes, he was an F-102 pilot.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on June 11, 2018:

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

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on June 11, 2018:

Robert

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

Robert Sacchi (author) on May 26, 2018:

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

John M McNally on May 26, 2018:

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 (author) on May 26, 2018:

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

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on May 26, 2018:

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 (author) on May 17, 2018:

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

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 16, 2018:

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 (author) on May 16, 2018:

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 Woods from Houston, Texas on May 16, 2018:

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 (author) on May 15, 2018:

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 Woods from Houston, Texas on May 15, 2018:

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 (author) on May 14, 2018:

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 from Shelton on May 14, 2018:

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

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 14, 2018:

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 from USA on May 13, 2018:

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.

Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on May 13, 2018:

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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