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Up In The Air For Presidents’ Day: Highlights of Presidential Flight

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Daniel J. McLain
U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Daniel J. McLain

President’s Day provides an opportunity to review the history of how the Commander In Chief has been involved with flight.

President Roosevelt was the first to fly in a plane – a curious occurrence because it happened 40 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Perhaps the urgency of POTUS traveling by air hadn’t occurred prior to January of 1943 when Roosevelt boarded a Boeing 314 flying boat, the Dixie Clipper and flew across the Atlantic to Casablanca. That meeting with Winston Churchill announced the demands for an unconditional surrender of the Axis powers.

In 1932, Roosevelt had flown to Chicago to accept the Democratic nomination for President. His trip to Casablanca was a necessity and highly secretive. Until then, air travel for a sitting president was considered too dangerous.

Ironically, a month after FDR’s trans-Atlantic flight, the Pan-Am Yankee Clipper crashed during landing in Lisbon, Portugal, killing 24. Had that happened before the trip to Casablanca, would officials have deemed it safe for FDR to fly?

First Lady Was First

tuskegee_flightA decade before her husband became the first President to fly, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to take to the air.

Following a White House dinner with Amelia Earhart and other guests on April 20, 1933, Mrs. Roosevelt, Earhart and some of the guests went to Hoover Field, which is now where the Pentagon is located. They flew in a Curtis Condor twin-motor Eastern Air Transport plane on a trip between Washington D.C. and Baltimore.

Eleanor Roosevelt also played a major role in the advancement of the Tuskegee Airmen, the black aviators who distinguished themselves during WWII. During a visit to the Tuskegee Army Air Field the First Lady requested a flight. Chief Civilian Flight Instructor Charles Alfred Anderson obliged and the flight lasted over an hour. Photos of her visit received wide distribution and helped remove racial obstacles the Tuskegee Airmen faced in their quest to serve their country.

Bush A Decorated WWII Aviator

TBF_GeorgeBush

George H.W. Bush went on to become the nation’s 41st President. In World War II, he became one of the Navy’s youngest pilots. He flew the carrier-based TBM Avenger torpedo bomber and completed 58 combat missions. He ditched once and survived being shot down once. Bush, who had not turned 19 when he received his wings, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals.

Dwight Eisenhower, by the way, received his pilot’s license and completed his first solo flight in 1937 but never qualified for Army wings. He went on to command the Allied forces that defeated Germany and served two terms as President.

Air Force One

AFOne
Another way in which the presidency and flight is connected is Air Force One. Technically, Air Force One is any aircraft with POTUS on board.

In 1944, FDR created the Presidential Pilot Office which eventually became the Presidential Airlift Group, which is part of the White House Military Office. And in 1990 President George H.W. Bush became the first Chief Executive to fly in the modified Boeing 747.

The first jet-powered Air Force One, a Boeing 707, was first used in 1962 by President Kennedy. That plane also served as the somber setting when President Johnson was sworn in after JFK’s assassination in 1963.

Written by Wendell Barnhouse

Wendell Barnhouse is a veteran journalist with over 40 years of experience as a writer and an editor. For the last 30 years, he wrote about college sports but he has had an interest and curiosity about aviation since he was in grade school.