Eight Notable Presidential Campaign Aircraft That Changed The Speed Of Politics

The airplane is now an indispensable part of the campaign

President Truman’s VC-118 (DC-6) named "Independence) (NMUSAF Photo)

Airplanes have revolutionized our nation and changed the way candidates campaign.

The airplane has been an important campaign tool for presidential candidates from the early 1950s. Not all candidates, however have had a dedicated campaign plane. Many simply used on-demand charters of business aircraft. And very few actually had access to aircraft owned by them or their families. Most dedicated campaign aircraft were leased for the campaign, paid for out of campaign funds.

Initially, the lines between campaign airplanes and official presidential airplanes, i.e., “Air Force One,” were somewhat blurred. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to fly while in office and to have an aircraft, a Douglas DC-4 for official travel.

After 1950, any national campaign for office required the ability to travel efficiently around the country. Below are our picks for the top eight aircraft used by presidential candidates beginning with Harry Truman in 1948.

Number 8 – Douglas DC-6

President Harry Truman had use of a Douglas VC-118 (VIP version of the DC-6) as a Presidential aircraft. The aircraft, dubbed “Independence,” was equipped with a galley for meals, plush seating in a forward cabin, a communications center, bunks, and standard airline seating in the back. This aircraft served as Truman’s official presidential aircraft, the equivalent of “Air Force One,” even thought that call sign had not yet been adopted. This plane is part of the Presidential Collection at the National Museum of the United States Air Force (NMUSAF), and is open for public inspection.

In 1952, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson typically flew on a DC-6 chartered from American Airlines with the words “Stevenson Special” on the side of the aircraft. The press corps flew on a separate aircraft that took off after Stevenson’s plane and landed before it did “so that if he {Stevenson} crashed they would be on the ground to report the accident.” (A Voice for the Underdog,” Ray Boomhower, 2015)

President Truman’s VC-118 (DC-6) named "Independence) (NMUSAF Photo)
President Truman’s VC-118 (DC-6) named “Independence) (NMUSAF Photo)

Number 7 – Lockheed Constellation VC-121

The Constellation, military designation VC-121, was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’ preferred aircraft. As Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe, he had flown on an earlier model of the Constellation. He had named it the Columbine for the state flower of Colorado, his wife Mamie’s home state. While running for President, he flew on the Columbine II, a VC-121. Until recently, Columbine II had been sitting in a desert in Arizona. A team from Bridgewater, Virginia took a year to return it a flyable condition. It was flown to Virginia where the interior will be restored to just the way it was when Eisenhower last used it in 1954. Columbine III is part of the NMUSAF Presidential Collection in Dayton, Ohio.

President Eisenhower’s Columbine III Lockheed Constellation (NMUSAF Photo)

Air Traffic Control (ATC) uses either the airlines flight number or an aircraft’s tail number for radio identification. During a flight into washing late in Eisenhower’s presidency, the tail number of the Constellation and an airline flight number were identical, causing confusion that resulted in the two aircraft coming dangerously close to each other. Shortly after that, it was decided that any aircraft with the President aboard would have the call sign “Air Force One.”

President Eisenhower's Columbine III Lockheed Constellation (NMUSAF Photo)
President Eisenhower’s Columbine III Lockheed Constellation (NMUSAF Photo)

Number 6 – Convair 240

In 1956, during the campaign for Eisenhower’s re-election, Richard Nixon, then vice-president, used a Convair 240 chartered from United Air Line. It was named “Vice President Nixon’s G.O.P. Congressional Special.”

Four years later, John F. Kennedy’s father purchased a Convair 240 from American Airlines for $270,000 for young Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Kennedy named the aircraft “Caroline” in honor of his daughter. The interior of the aircraft had been modified into a flying office with a full galley, bathrooms, a bedroom and work desk. There were sixteen seats for Kennedy and his staff. Once elected, he would move up to the first purpose-built “Air Force One,” a Boeing 707.

Kennedy’s Convair 240, one of the few aircraft actually owned by the candidate’s campaign.

Number 5 – Boeing 727

Jimmy Carter became one of the first candidates to have a jet for a dedicated campaign aircraft. His campaign leased a Boeing 727 from United Airlines in 1977. Appropriate for the peanut farmer from Georgia, the aircraft was named “Peanut One.”

Coincidentally, Peanut One’s primary pilot was James Kenneth Carter—no relation to the candidate. They became friends during the nearly year-long campaign.

The 727 was a popular airplane for campaigning. It had been designed for operations into and out of short runways, making it useful for visiting smaller towns and airports. Barry Goldwater, during his bid for the Presidency in 1964 used a chartered 727 named “Yia-bi-ken,” a Navajo phrase meaning “House in the Sky.” The aircraft interior was divided into three sections: a front cabin for the senator, including bunks. This was followed by 20 first class seats for staff, and Mrs. Goldwater’s hairdresser. The aft cabin had 54 for press and additional staff.

During the period from the 1960s through the 1990s, very little press notice was taken of candidates’ aircraft. Campaign aircraft were just another tool used by candidates, and deep online research often turns up nothing but brief anecdotal references of a candidate’s aircraft. There are several references to Hubert Humphrey’s aircraft, probably a 727.

Walter Mondale also apparently used a 727, called “Minnesota Fritz,” in recognition of his father. The only photo online shows him in a set of airstairs at the very front of the airplane, with the Minnesota Fritz insignia. Obviously, the airstairs were placed in a position to show off the Minnesota Fritz insignia, but it looks like Mondale may have exited through the copilot’s window.

Identifying the type of aircraft was a challenge too. Boeing used the two “eyebrow” windows above the main cockpit windows on early 707s, 727s, and 737. Eventually, a news article mentioned “727” in reference to his aircraft.

George McGovern also used a 727, christened Dakota Queen II after the WWII B-24 bomber, the Dakota Queen, that was name in honor of his wife Eleanor.

Jimmy Carter greets press as he steps off of Peanut One, a Boeing 727 during the 1977 campaign.
Jimmy Carter greets press as he steps off of Peanut One, a Boeing 727 during the 1977 campaign.

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Jeff Richmond

Written by Jeff Richmond

Jeff has been flying and writing for more than thirty-five years. He flew in the Air Force and later taught college-level aeronautics. He has worked as professional photographer and a business and technical writer for both Pratt and Whitney and Lockheed Martin. Now retired, Jeff is on a mission to visit, photograph and write about aerospace museums—especially the smaller, lesser known museums.

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