Bet You Don’t Know All These Things About Presidential Air Travel

I’ll Take Air Force One History For $500 Alex!

Official US Air Force photograph

In honor of Presidents Day, we proudly present the facts, figures, and little-known but pertinent minutiae of Presidential air travel. Enjoy the show!

Image courtesy Smithsonian- National Air and Space Museum

The First President to Fly

The first president to fly did so after he left office. On October 11th 1910 Theodore Roosevelt (26th President- 1901-1909) went for a four minute flight aboard a Wright Flyer with Wright Brothers employee Archibald Hoxsey at Kinloch Aviation Field near St. Louis in Missouri. Just three days later the former President of the United States (POTUS) was shot in Milwaukee but survived in part because the bullet was slowed by the steel eyeglass case and a thick folded up speech Teddy had in his chest pocket.

Image courtesy National Archives

The First Licensed Pilot President

Dwight D Eisenhower (34th President- 1953-1961) was the first President to hold a private pilot’s license, though he did not fly privately as POTUS. Eisenhower, who is perhaps better known for his contributions as General of the Army and Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, learned to fly and soloed for the first time while he was stationed in the Philippines during 1937. He received his license at Fort Lewis near Tacoma in Washington during 1939. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower did not share Ike’s enthusiasm for flight.

Image courtesy Boeing

The First Sitting President in the Air

The first president to fly while in office was also a Roosevelt- Teddy’s distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd President- 1933-1945) flew from Miami in Florida to Casablanca in Morocco to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1943. The Boeing Pan American Clipper Dixie Clipper flying boat took three legs and three days to carry FDR across the Atlantic Ocean to his meeting in Morocco. During the journey the POTUS traveled under the alias “Mr. Jones.”

Image courtesy National Archives

The First Presidential Aircraft

A Douglas RD-2 Dolphin amphibian was the very first aircraft to be designated as a transport for the President. Although so designated between 1933 and 1939 for FDR, he never flew in it. Then during 1943 at the direction of General “Hap” Arnold the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) modified a Consolidated C-87A Liberator Express (the cargo version of the same company’s B-24 Liberator heavy bomber) for use by FDR. The special C-87A was dubbed Guess Where II. Ironically although First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt used the aircraft, FDR never did fly in his C-87A either, but…

Official US Air Force photograph

First Presidential Aircraft Actually Used by a President

Instead, the first purpose-built aircraft on which FDR flew was a Douglas VC-54C Skymaster (specially modified Douglas C-54A Skymaster transport) named Sacred Cow. The Sacred Cow had the fuselage of a C-54A but the wings of a C-54B, offering greater fuel capacity. Other modifications to the Sacred Cow included an elevator to allow the POTUS to board the aircraft in his wheelchair, a conference room, private lavatory, hide-away bed, and later a refrigerator in the galley. President Harry S Truman (33rd President- 1945-1953) also traveled on the Sacred Cow– even signing the National Security Act of 1947 aboard the aircraft, thereby giving birth to the United States Air Force (USAF)

Official US Air Force photograph

The First Modified Jet-Powered Presidential Aircraft

Customized jet-powered aircraft took over the job of transporting the POTUS in 1962 when the Boeing VC-137C Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000 (USAF serial 62-6000- a modified Boeing 707 airliner) entered service. President John F Kennedy (35th President- 1961-1963) used the aircraft for the first time on November 10th 1962 when he flew to New York to attend the funeral of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Before SAM 26000 departed Dallas that awful day in 1963, President Lyndon B Johnson (36th President- 1963-1969) became the only POTUS ever to be sworn in to office aboard an aircraft.

Official US Air Force photograph

The SAM That Got Stuck In the Mud

After serving Kennedy, Johnson, and Richard M Nixon (37th President- 1969-1974) SAM 26000 was replaced by SAM 27000 (another VC-137C) but still earned its keep. During Janaury of 1988, SAM 27000 carrying President William Clinton (42nd President- 1993-2001) got stuck in the mud at the University of Illinois’ Willard Airport at Champaign. Backup aircraft venerable SAM 26000 flew from Grissom Air Force Base (AFB) near Peru in Indiana to Champaign and provided transport for the POTUS from then on until retirement in Washington a few days later.

Image courtesy National Archives

The Most Accomplished Presidential Pilot/The Only President Shot Down in Combat

President George H.W. Bush (41st President- 1989-1993) was undoubtedly the most accomplished Presidential pilot, though he earned this accolade much earlier in life. Bush was not yet 19 years of age when he received his Navy Wings of Gold after learning to land aboard a carrier on the Great Lakes paddle-wheeler USS Sable (IX-81). He went on to pilot TBM Avenger torpedo bombers from the light aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto (CVL-30). Assigned to Torpedo Squadron FIVE ONE (VT-51) of Air Group 51, Bush flew a total of 58 combat missions, was shot down and rescued once, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation during his service in the Pacific during World War II.

Image courtesy National Archives

The First Presidential Helicopter Flight

On July 12th 1957 President Eisenhower flew from Washington to the Presidential Retreat at Camp David in Maryland aboard a Bell H-13 Sioux (military Bell 47) helicopter. Thus began the regular use of helicopters by American Presidents. Sikorsky VH-34 and later VH-3D began operating from the South Lawn at the White House in 1957. The augmented Marine Helicopter Squadron ONE (HMX-1) has also operated Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight, Sikorsky VH-60N Seahawk, and CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopters as well as Boeing MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft in support of POTUS and the US Government.

Official US Marine Corps photograph

Flying the Decoy/Backup Can’t Be as Much Fun

While it’s common to see shots of the green and white Marine Corps Air Facility (MARF) Quantico-based HMX-1 helicopters sitting on the South Lawn or landing near what will soon become Air Force One, it’s unusual to see more than one of them at a time. That’s not because a second and sometimes even a third identical helicopter (a decoy) isn’t part of the protocol though. Whenever the President is aboard Marine One in flight, at least one decoy/backup rotorcraft is nearby just in case.

Official US Air Force photograph

Riding Herd on Air Force One on 9/11

When President George W Bush (43rd President- 2001-2009) was informed about the horrific events unfolding in New York on the morning of September 11th 2001, he was in Sarasota, Florida. Once POTUS was in the air, Air Force One (SN 29000) headed out over the Gulf of Mexico at high altitude to gain separation from other air traffic. Though many Air Force fighter assets were scrambled that terrible day, the first to join on and escort Air Force One were four General Dynamics F-16C Vipers from the 111th Fighter Squadron (FS) Ace in the Hole of the 147th Fighter Wing (FW), Texas Air National Guard based at Ellington Joint Reserve Base (JRB) southeast of Houston- W’s former Texas ANG squadron. The 111th FS F-16Cs escorted Air Force One first to Barksdale AFB and then Offutt AFB, and finally on to Washington.

Official US Air Force photograph

Air Force One Today

The current Presidential aircraft, Boeing VC-25As SAM 28000 and 29000 (modified Boeing 747-200B airliners), are the most capable Presidential aircraft ever. Boasting more than 4,000 square feet of floor space on three levels, the jets are equipped with the President’s office, conference room, bedroom, bathroom, gym, and other amenities. Capable of communicating with just about anyone, anywhere, anytime, the jets are also hardened against electronic interference, are equipped with all manner of countermeasures, and can fly more or less until the food runs out. A couple of newer 747-8 airframes have recently been identified as the next Presidential aircraft.

Other Trivial Tidbits-

High-resolution (at the time) cameras were installed in the wheel wells of the Lockheed VC-121E Super Constellation (modified Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation) named Columbine III for a short period of time during 1959 while Ike was POTUS.

Columbine III was the last propeller-driven aircraft to be designated Air Force One before the VC-137 entered service in 1962.

Official US Air Force photograph

The Air Force One callsign was first used during the Eisenhower administration.

Two Aero U-4B Commander twin engine aircraft were the smallest aircraft to use the Air Force One designation and the first to sport the blue and white paint scheme.

In 1958 the Air Force added three standard Boeing 707 jets (designated VC-137s and assigned Air Force serial numbers SAM 970, 971, and 972). Though it would be several more years before SAM 26000 became synonymous with Air Force One, these were Boeing’s first Presidential transports.

A Beech VC-6A King Air (a B90 King Air) served as Air Force One when LBJ flew between Bergstrom AFB near Austin in Texas and his family ranch near Johnson City. The aircraft wore no special paint scheme but like all aircraft aboard which the POTUS flies, it carried the callsign. LBJ also used a Lockheed JetStar business jet for this commute.

Official US Navy photograph

President George W Bush flew from Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island in San Diego out to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CNV-72) offshore on May 1st 2003. The Sea Control Squadron THREE FIVE (VS-35) Blue Wolves Lockheed S-3B Viking carried the callsign Navy 1 while W was aboard. W was the first sitting president to log a trap aboard an aircraft carrier (though he wasn’t flying Navy 1), and he and his father are the only two Presidents to snag a cross-deck pendant.

VC-137C SAM 27000 took off as Air Force One and landed as SAM 27000 in 1974 when Richard Nixon left Washington for California and President Ford (38th President- 1974-1977) was sworn in while Nixon was airborne. For that reason SAM 27000 has 1,440 takeoffs but only 1,439 landings as Air Force One.


Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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