Published on July 6, 2016
Air Force One is the official air traffic control call sign of a United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. In common parlance the term refers to those Air Force aircraft specifically designed, built, and used for the purpose of transporting the president. The presidential aircraft is a prominent symbol of the American presidency and its power.The idea of designating specific military aircraft to transport the President arose in 1943, when officials of the United States Army Air Forces, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, became concerned with relying on commercial airlines to transport the president. A C-87 Liberator Express was reconfigured for use as a presidential transport; however, it was rejected by the Secret Service amid concerns over the aircraft’s safety record. A C-54 Skymaster was then converted for presidential use; this aircraft, dubbed the Sacred Cow, transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and was subsequently used for another two years by President Harry S. Truman.
The “Air Force One” call sign was created after a 1953 incident during which a Lockheed Constellation named Columbine II carrying President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the same airspace as a commercial airline flight using the same call sign.
A number of aircraft types have been used as Air Force One since the creation of the presidential fleet, starting with two Lockheed Constellations in the late 1950s: Columbine II and Columbine III. It also has included two Boeing 707s introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively; since 1990, the presidential fleet has consisted of two Boeing VC-25As, which are specifically configured, highly customized Boeing 747-200B series aircraft. The Air Force plans to procure the Boeing 747-8 to be the next version of Air Force One.
On 11 October 1910, Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to fly in an aircraft, an early Wright Flyer from Kinloch Field near St. Louis, Missouri. However, he was no longer in office at the time, having been succeeded by William Howard Taft. The record-making occasion was a brief overflight of the crowd at a county fair but was nonetheless the beginning of presidential air travel.
Prior to World War II, overseas and cross-country presidential travel was rare. The lack of wireless telecommunication and available modes of transportation made long-distance travel impractical, as it took much time and isolated the president from events in Washington, D.C. Railroads were a safer and more reliable option if the president needed to travel to distant states. By the late 1930s, with the arrival of aircraft such as the Douglas DC-3, increasing numbers of the U.S. public saw passenger air travel as a reasonable mode of transportation. All-metal aircraft, more reliable engines, and new radio aids to navigation had made commercial airline travel safer and more convenient. Life insurance companies even began to offer airline pilots insurance policies, albeit at extravagant rates, and many commercial travelers and government officials began using the airlines in preference to rail travel, especially for longer trips.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to fly in an aircraft while in office. The first aircraft obtained specifically for presidential travel was a Douglas Dolphin amphibian delivered in 1933 which was designated RD-2 by the US Navy and based at the Naval base at Anacostia D.C. The Dolphin was modified with luxury upholstery for four passengers and a small separate sleeping compartment. The aircraft remained in service as a presidential transport from 1933 until 1939. There are no reports, however, on whether the president actually flew in the aircraft. During World War II, Roosevelt traveled on the Dixie Clipper, a Pan Am-crewed Boeing 314 flying boat to the 1943 Casablanca Conference in Morocco, a flight that covered 5,500 miles (in three legs). The threat from the German submarines throughout the Battle of the Atlantic made air travel the preferred method of VIP transatlantic transportation.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s C-54 Skymaster aircraft, nicknamed “the Sacred Cow”.
Concerned about relying upon commercial airlines to transport the president, USAAF leaders ordered the conversion of a military aircraft to accommodate the special needs of the Commander-in-Chief. The first dedicated aircraft proposed for presidential use was a C-87A VIP transport aircraft. This aircraft, number 41-24159, was re-modified in 1943 for use as a presidential VIP transport, the Guess Where II, intended to carry President Franklin D. Roosevelt on international trips. Had it been accepted, it would have been the first aircraft to be used in presidential service, in effect the first Air Force One. However, after a review of the C-87’s highly controversial safety record in service, the Secret Service flatly refused to approve the Guess Where II for presidential carriage.As the C-87 was a derivative of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber, it presented strong offensive impressions to enemy fighter aircraft as well as foreign destinations visited, an issue not present with airframes that were used purely for transport. The Guess Where II was used to transport senior members of the Roosevelt administration on various trips. In March 1944, it transported Eleanor Roosevelt on a goodwill tour of several Latin American countries. The C-87 was scrapped in 1945.
The Secret Service subsequently reconfigured a Douglas C-54 Skymaster for presidential transport duty. The VC-54C aircraft, nicknamed the Sacred Cow, included a sleeping area, radio telephone, and retractable elevator to lift Roosevelt in his wheelchair. As modified, the VC-54C was used by President Roosevelt only once before his death, on his trip to the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
The VC-118 Independence used primarily by President Truman
After Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman became president. The legislation that created the U.S. Air Force, the National Security Act of 1947, was signed by Truman while on board the VC-54C. He replaced the VC-54C in 1947 with a modified C-118 Liftmaster, calling it the Independence (the name of Truman’s Missouri hometown). This was the first aircraft acting as Air Force One that had a distinctive exterior—a bald eagle head painted on its nose.
The presidential call sign was established for security purposes during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The change stemmed from a 1953 incident where an Eastern Airlines commercial flight (8610) had the same call sign as the flight the president was on (Air Force 8610). The airliner accidentally entered the same airspace, and after the incident, the unique presidential aircraft call sign “Air Force One” was introduced. The first official flight of Air Force One was in 1959, during the Eisenhower administration.
The VC-121 Columbine III used by President Eisenhower
Eisenhower introduced four propeller driven aircraft to presidential service. This group included two Lockheed C-121 Constellations, the aircraft Columbine II (VC-121A 48-610, currently undergoing restoration after being stored at Marana Regional Airport in Arizona) the only primary presidential airplane ever sold—and Columbine III (VC-121E 53-7885, transferred to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1966 and placed on display). They were named by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower after the columbine, the official state flower of her adopted home state of Colorado. Two Aero Commanders were added to the fleet and earned the distinction of being the smallest aircraft ever to serve as Air Force One. President Eisenhower also upgraded Air Force One’s technology by adding an air-to-ground telephone and an air-to-ground teletype machine.