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THE TALES of U.S. presidents in the air extend from a joy ride of Teddy Roosevelt to a flying date of Barak and Michelle Obama. In between, there are international conferences at wartime, a communication quandary with Eastern Airlines, an opera role and a name change over Missouri.
On October 11, 1910, less than seven years after the Wright Brothers’ epic flight, Theodore Roosevelt took a brief hop in Arch Hoxley’s Wright Flyer at a Kinloch Field county fair near St. Louis. TR was ex-president at the time.
Teddy’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to fly while in office, though he didn’t use the first or even second aircraft offered. In 1933, the U.S. Navy acquired a Douglas Dolphin amphibian for presidential use. California’s Wilmington-Catalina Airlines was already flying such a craft, the first Douglas in widespread commercial use.
There’s no record that FDR ever flew in the Dolphin, redesignated RD-2 in navy parlance. However, with German U-boats heightening the danger of travel by ship, Roosevelt chose to fly above the ocean to two important World War II conferences.
A Boeing 314 Clipper with a Pan Am crew flew FDR to and from the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. There, he, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, French General Charles DeGaulle and advisors discussed Allied European strategy.
Later in 1943, a Consolidated C-87 Liberator (transport variation of the B-24 bomber) was considered as an official presidential carrier. However, the Secret Service objected to its spotty safety record. There were also unwanted political implications of the president using a military-based aircraft.
Instead, the first regularly used presidential aircraft was a Douglas C-54 Skymaster nicknamed the Sacred Cow. This transport variant of the DC-4 was reconfigured with sleeping area, radio telephone and a retractable elevator for lifting FDR in his wheelchair.
In February 1945, FDR flew in the Sacred Cow to the Yalta Conference, in the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea. He, Churchill, and Russian Premier Joseph Stalin formalized post-war strategy there.
The term “Air Force One” didn’t come about until the 1950s, and this, through an Air Traffic Control quandary.
In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower’s official Lockheed Constellation shared an ATC call sign, flight 8610, with an Eastern Airlines plane in the same air space. Confusion arose, though it didn’t get settled officially until 1959 with the first flight of Air Force One, another Lockheed Constellation in the president’s fleet.
Since 1959, the ATC call sign of any aircraft carrying the president is Air Force One. Helicopters with a president aboard have adopted the name Marine One.
An Eisenhower Constellation, Columbine II, is in storage (and, alas, decaying) in Arizona. There’s a movement to restore this aircraft; see http://goo.gl/39Q3fM. This and other presidential flying lore were brought to my attention by auto/aviation colleague Ray DeTournay.
In 1962, a Boeing C-137 Stratoliner (a 707 transport variant) became the first jet entering the presidential fleet, during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Industrial designer Raymond Loewy helped in its livery. Years later, in 1987, this Air Force One became an opera star.
Nixon used Air Force One for his historic trip to Beijing in February 1972.
Later, when Nixon resigned in 1974, Gerald Ford was sworn in while Nixon was flying to California. Over Jefferson City, Missouri, as the president because ex-president, his pilot radioed ATC for a change of call sign from Air Force One to SAM 27000, this particular Boeing C-137’s registration number.
Other Air Force One-designated aircraft have included a Beechcraft King Air B90 (military designation VC-6A) used by Lyndon Johnson between Bergstrom AFB outside Austin,Texas, and the family ranch.
Gulfstreams have flown president Bill Clinton (visiting Turkey; later, along with an Air Force One decoy, in Pakistan). Barack Obama used Gulfstreams on a family vacation to Maine and a New York City date with Michelle. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015