How do you transport the most powerful man in the world? Certainly, he cannot go and use commercial flights. Every minute the President of the United States is of utmost importance and he certainly cannot be expected to waste precious time waiting and checking in at airports. Besides, can you just imagine the security nightmare that would bring?
That was exactly in the minds of government officials back in 1943 when concerns were raised about the U.S. President using commercial airlines. It was then that the idea of a presidential plane came up and was approved.
The First Planes
The Secret Service is the agency in charge of the President’s security. When the United States Army Air Forces, the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force, suggested that a plane be specially designated for then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it immediately went about reconfiguring a C-87 Liberator Express. The plane was rejected, however, by the Secret Service because of its spotty safety record.
Another plane was then rushed and configured for presidential transport. In came the C-54 Skymaster. It was named the “Sacred Cow” and it was used to fly Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in 1945. After he died, Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, used it for two more years until 1947.
Presidential air travel actually started with Theodore Roosevelt. He boarded a Wright Flyer at Kinloch Field in St. Louis in 1910, making him the first president to ride in a plane. At that time, however, he had already stepped down, with William Howard Taft already occupying the White House.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to ride in a plane while in office when he used a Douglas Dolphin amphibian. He also rode a Boeing 314 Flying Boat, also known as the Dixie Clipper, to the Casablanca Conference in 1943. The plane was staffed with crew from Pan Am.
The C-87 was then proposed but eventually rejected. Called the “Guess Where II,” the plane was still used to transport senior members of the Roosevelt administration, as well as the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who toured several countries in Latin America in 1945 as part of a whirlwind goodwill tour.
The C-54 Skymaster was the plane approved by the Secret Service. It had a sleeping area, radio telephone and even a retractable elevator to help lift Roosevelt, who was already confined to a wheelchair at that time.
In 1947, Truman replaced the plane with a modified C-118 Liftmaster. It was called the “Independence,” after Truman’s hometown in his Missouri. It was the first presidential plane with a distinctive exterior of a bald eagle’s head painted on the plane’s nose.
In 1953, during the term of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the presidential plane with call sign of Air Force 8610 entered the same air space where an Eastern Airlines with the same call number was situated. As a result, it was decided that the presidential plane would henceforth carry the unique call sign of Air Force One.
Eisenhower also made use of four other propeller planes as part of the Air Force One fleet. These included the Lockheed C-121 Constellation and the Aero Commander, which has the distinction of being the smallest plane to serve as Air Force One. Air-to-ground telephone and teletype machines were also added to the planes.
Several other planes were used to serve the U.S. President. There was a Boeing 707 jet called the Special Air Mission, or SAM, 26000. The plane served all the presidents from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, though SAM 27000 in 1972 already officially replaced it. SAM 26000, nevertheless, remained as a backup plane before it was finally retired in 1998. It was the plane used to carry Kennedy’s body after his assassination. It was also the plane used by Richard Nixon on his groundbreaking visits to China and the Soviet Union.
The SAM 27000, on the other hand, served the White House until 2001. It is now on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
Other Planes Used
Other aircrafts also temporarily used the call sign Air Force One. These include the following:
Beechcraft King Air B90 – used by Lyndon Johnson twice.
United Airlines – used by Nixon and his family on a flight to Los Angeles. It actually used the sign Executive One.
Gulfstream III – used by Clinton from Ankara to a naval air station also in Turkey and in a flight to Pakistan. Also used by Barack Obama when his family went on vacation in Maine.
S-3B Viking – used by George W. Bush when he delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003. It used the call sign “Navy One.”
Gulfstream C-37B – used by Obama when he went on a date with his wife in New York.
Ins and Outs
Air Force One has a silver color with blue trims, with the Presidential seal on both sides. The 89th Military Airlift Wing’s Special Missions Fleet out of Andrews Air Force Base operates it.
The plane can carry 80 passengers and 23 crewmembers with practically unlimited range. It has a mobile command center that is connected to the military and national security communications networks.
Operating Air Force One costs $40,243 per hour of flight time. The money comes out of the budget of the Defense Department, though the President’s political party pays for the expenses when the plane is used for campaign purposes. The President and his chief aides use up a total of $185 million every year on travel costs.
To complement Air Force One, there is also a helicopter called “Marine One”. It is used to transport the President from the White House to Air Force One’s hangar. It is also used for short trips and during his Camp David retreats. There is also a Marine Helicopter Squadron One just down the Potomac River near the White House.
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