Air Force One is the official air traffic control call sign for a United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. In common parlance, the term is used to denote U.S. Air Force aircraft modified and used to transport the president. The aircraft are prominent symbols of the American presidency and its power.
The idea of designating specific military aircraft to transport the President arose in 1943, when officials of the United States Army Air Forces, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, became concerned about using commercial airlines for presidential travel. A C-87 Liberator Express was reconfigured for use as the first dedicated VIP-and-presidential transport aircraft and named Guess Where II, but the Secret Service rejected it because of its safety record. A C-54 Skymaster was then converted for presidential use; dubbed the Sacred Cow, it carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in February 1945 and was used for another two years by President Harry S. Truman.
The "Air Force One" call sign was created in 1953, after a Lockheed Constellation named Columbine II carrying President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the same airspace as a commercial airline flight using the same flight number.
Other Air Force Ones have included another Lockheed Constellation, Columbine III, and two Boeing 707s, introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. Since 1990, the presidential fleet has consisted of two Boeing VC-25As: highly customized Boeing 747-200B aircraft. The U.S. Air Force plans to buy two Boeing 747-8s to serve as the next Air Force Ones.
On 11 October 1910, Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to fly in an aircraft, an early Wright Flyer from Kinloch Field near St. Louis, Missouri. He was no longer in office at the time, having been succeeded by William Howard Taft. The record-making occasion was a brief overflight of the crowd at a county fair but was nonetheless the beginning of presidential air travel.
Before World War II, overseas and cross-country presidential travel was rare. The lack of wireless telecommunication and available modes of transportation made long-distance travel impractical, as it took too much time and isolated the president from events in Washington, D.C. Railroads were a safer and more reliable option if the president needed to travel to distant states. By the late 1930s, with the arrival of aircraft such as the Douglas DC-3, increasing numbers of the U.S. public saw passenger air travel as a reasonable mode of transportation. All-metal aircraft, more reliable engines, and new radio aids to navigation had made commercial airline travel safer and more convenient. Life insurance companies even began to offer airline pilots insurance policies, albeit at extravagant rates, and many commercial travelers and government officials began using the airlines in preference to rail travel, especially for longer trips.
First presidential aircraft
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to fly in an aircraft while in office. The first aircraft obtained specifically for presidential travel was a Douglas Dolphin amphibian delivered in 1933 which was designated RD-2 by the US Navy and based at the Naval base at Anacostia D.C. The Dolphin was modified with luxury upholstery for four passengers and a small separate sleeping compartment. The aircraft remained in service as a presidential transport from 1933 until 1939. There are no reports, however, on whether the president actually flew in the aircraft. During World War II, Roosevelt traveled on the Dixie Clipper, a Pan Am-crewed Boeing 314 flying boat to the 1943 Casablanca Conference in Morocco, a flight that covered 5,500 miles (8,890 km) in three legs. The threat from the German submarines throughout the Battle of the Atlantic made air travel the preferred method of VIP transatlantic transportation.
Concerned about relying upon commercial airlines to transport the president, USAAF leaders ordered the conversion of a military aircraft to accommodate the special needs of the Commander-in-Chief. The first dedicated aircraft proposed for presidential use was a C-87A VIP transport aircraft. This aircraft, number 41-24159, was modified in 1943 for use as a presidential VIP transport, the Guess Where II, intended to carry President Franklin D. Roosevelt on international trips. Had it been accepted, it would have been the first aircraft to be used in presidential service. However, after a review of the C-87's highly controversial safety record in service, the Secret Service flatly refused to approve the Guess Where II for presidential carriage. As the C-87 was a derivative of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber, it presented strong offensive impressions to enemy fighter aircraft as well as foreign destinations visited, an issue not present with airplanes that were used purely for transport. The Guess Where II was used to transport senior members of the Roosevelt administration on various trips. In March 1944, it transported Eleanor Roosevelt on a goodwill tour of several Latin American countries. The C-87 was scrapped in 1945.
The Secret Service subsequently reconfigured a Douglas C-54 Skymaster for presidential transport duty. The VC-54C aircraft, nicknamed the Sacred Cow, included a sleeping area, radio telephone, and retractable elevator to lift Roosevelt in his wheelchair. As modified, the VC-54C was used by President Roosevelt only once before his death, on his trip to the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
Late 1940s and 1950s
After Roosevelt's death in April 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman became president. The legislation that created the U.S. Air Force, the National Security Act of 1947, was signed by Truman while on board the VC-54C. He replaced the VC-54C in 1947 with a modified C-118 Liftmaster, calling it the Independence after his Missouri hometown. It was given a distinctive exterior, as its nose was painted like the head of a bald eagle. The plane, which included a stateroom (where aft fuselage had been originally) and a main cabin that could seat 24 passengers or could be made up into 12 sleeper berths, is now housed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
Eisenhower introduced four propeller-driven aircraft to presidential service. This group included two Lockheed C-121 Constellations, aircraft Columbine II (VC-121A 48-610) and Columbine III (VC-121E 53-7885). They were named by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower for the columbine, official state flower of her adopted home state of Colorado. In addition, two Aero Commanders were also added to the fleet.
Columbine II is the first plane to bear the call sign Air Force One. This designation for the U.S. Air Force aircraft carrying the incumbent president was established after an incident in 1953, when Eastern Air Lines 8610, a commercial flight, crossed paths with Air Force 8610, which was carrying President Eisenhower. Initially used informally, the designation became official in 1962.
Boeing 707s and entry to jet age
Toward the end of Eisenhower's second term, in 1959, the Air Force added the first of three specially built Boeing 707-120 jet aircraft—VC-137s, designated SAM (Special Air Missions) 970, 971 and 972—into the fleet. The high-speed jet technology built into these aircraft enabled presidents from Eisenhower through Nixon to travel long distances more quickly for face-to-face meetings with world leaders. Eisenhower flew aboard the VC-137 SAM970 during his "Flight to Peace" goodwill tour in December 1959. He visited 11 Asian nations, flying 22,000 miles (35,000 km) in 19 days, about twice as fast as he could have covered that distance via one of the Columbines.
Under John F. Kennedy, presidential air travel entered the jet age. He had used the Eisenhower-era jets for trips to Canada, France, Austria, and the United Kingdom. Then in October 1962, the U.S. Air Force purchased a Boeing C-137 Stratoliner, a modified long-range Boeing 707—Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000.
The Air Force had designed a special presidential livery in red and metallic gold, with the nation's name in block letters. Kennedy felt the aircraft appeared too regal, and, on advice from his wife, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, he contacted the French-born American industrial designer Raymond Loewy for help in designing a new livery and interiors for the VC-137 jet. Loewy met with the president, and his earliest research on the project took him to the National Archives, where he looked at the first printed copy of the United States Declaration of Independence; he saw the country's name set widely spaced and in upper case in Caslon typeface. He chose to expose the polished aluminum fuselage on the bottom side and used two blues – slate-blue associated with the early republic and the presidency and a more contemporary cyan to represent the present and future. The presidential seal was added to both sides of the fuselage near the nose, a large American flag was painted on the tail, and the sides of the aircraft read "United States of America" in all capital letters. Loewy's work won immediate praise from the president and the press. The VC-137 markings were adapted for the larger VC-25A when it entered service in 1990.
SAM 26000 was in service from 1962 to 1998, serving Presidents Kennedy to Clinton. On 22 November 1963, SAM 26000 carried President Kennedy to Dallas, Texas, where it served as the backdrop as the Kennedys greeted well-wishers at Dallas's Love Field. Later that afternoon, Kennedy was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the office of President and took the oath of office aboard SAM 26000. On Johnson's orders, the plane carried Kennedy's body back to Washington. A decade later, SAM 26000 took Johnson's body home to Texas after his state funeral in Washington.
Johnson used SAM 26000 to travel extensively domestically and to visit troops in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. SAM 26000 served President Nixon on several groundbreaking overseas voyages, including his famous visit to the People's Republic of China in February 1972 and trip to the Soviet Union later that year, both firsts for an American president. Nixon dubbed the plane the "Spirit of '76" in honor of the forthcoming bicentennial of the United States; that logo was painted on both sides of the plane's nose.
SAM 26000 was replaced in December 1972 by another VC-137, Special Air Mission 27000, although SAM 26000 was kept as a backup until it was finally retired in 1998. Richard Nixon was the first president to use SAM 27000; the newer aircraft served every president until it was replaced by two VC-25A aircraft (SAM 28000 and 29000) in 1990.
In June 1974, while President Nixon was on his way to a scheduled stop in Syria, Syrian fighter jets intercepted Air Force One to act as escorts. However, the Air Force One crew was not informed in advance and, as a result, took evasive action including a dive.
After announcing his intention to resign the presidency, Nixon boarded SAM 27000 (with call sign "Air Force One") to travel to California. Colonel Ralph Albertazzie, then pilot of Air Force One, recounted that after Gerald Ford was sworn in as president, the plane had to be redesignated as SAM 27000, indicating no president was on board the aircraft. Over Jefferson City, Missouri, Albertazzie radioed: "'Kansas City, this was Air Force One. Will you change our call sign to Sierra Alpha Mike (SAM) 27000?' Back came the reply: 'Roger, Sierra Alpha Mike 27000. Good luck to the President.'"
SAM 27000's last flight as Air Force One was on 29 August 2001 when it flew President George W. Bush from San Antonio to Waco, Texas. Following the flight, it was formally decommissioned, then flown to San Bernardino International Airport (former Norton AFB) in California. It was dismantled and taken to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, where it was reassembled and is on permanent display.
Though Ronald Reagan's two terms as president saw no major changes to Air Force One, the manufacture of the presidential aircraft version of the 747 began during his presidency. The USAF issued a Request For Proposal in 1985 for two wide-body aircraft with a minimum of three engines and an unrefueled range of 6,000 miles (9,700 km). Boeing with the 747 and McDonnell Douglas with the DC-10 submitted proposals, and the Reagan Administration ordered two identical 747s to replace the aging 707s he used. The interior designs, drawn up by First Lady Nancy Reagan, were reminiscent of the American Southwest. The first of two aircraft, designated VC-25A, was delivered in 1990, during the administration of George H. W. Bush. Delays were experienced to allow for additional work to protect the aircraft from electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects.
The VC-25 is equipped with both secure and unsecure phone and computer communications systems, enabling the president to perform duties while airborne, in the event of an attack on the US. The presidential air fleet is operated by the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Field, Maryland.
9/11 to present
On 11 September 2001, President George W. Bush was interrupted as he attended an event at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, after the attack on the World Trade Center South Tower in New York City. He took off on a VC-25 from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport with Colonel Mark Tillman, the senior pilot of Air Force One that day, in charge. Air traffic controllers gave Air Force One an ominous warning that a passenger jet was close to Air Force One and was unresponsive to calls. Tillman recalls: "As we got over Gainesville, Florida, we got the word from Jacksonville Center. They said, 'Air Force One you have traffic behind you and basically above you that is descending into you, we are not in contact with them – they have shut their responder [sic] off.' And at that time it kind of led us to believe maybe someone was coming into us in Sarasota, they saw us take off, they just stayed high and are following us at this point. We had no idea what the capabilities of the terrorists were at that point."
In response to this reported threat, Col. Tillman said he flew Air Force One over the Gulf of Mexico to test whether the other aircraft would follow. The other jet continued on its route, and Tillman said that it was later explained to him that an airliner had lost its transponder, which normally broadcasts an electronic identification signal, and that the pilots on-board neglected to switch to another radio frequency. A threat came again when Tillman received a message warning of an imminent attack on Air Force One. "We got word from the vice president and the staff that 'Angel was next,' indicating the classified call sign for Air Force One. Once we got into the Gulf [of Mexico] and they passed to us that 'Angel was next,' at that point I asked for fighter support. If an airliner was part of the attack, it would be good to have fighters on the wing to go ahead and take care of us." At this point, Tillman said that the plan to fly the president back to Washington, DC, was aborted and instead Tillman landed at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, where the president made a speech. Tillman explained that this was due to his concern that because of the reported threat, Air Force One would be attacked when he returned to Andrews Air Force Base.
After the preliminary stops, the president was returned to Washington. The next day, officials at the White House and the Justice Department explained that President Bush did this because there was "specific and credible information that the White House and Air Force One were also intended targets." The White House could not confirm evidence of a threat made against Air Force One, and investigation found the original claim to be a result of miscommunication.
Presidents have invited other world leaders to travel with them on Air Force One at times, including Nixon inviting Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev to travel with him to California from Washington, D.C. in June 1973. In 1983, President Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II toured the U.S. West Coast aboard Air Force One. In March 2012, President Obama took British Prime Minister David Cameron to a basketball game in Ohio aboard Air Force One.
On 27 April 2009, a low-flying VC-25 circled New York City for a photo-op and training exercise and caused a scare for many in New York. Fallout from the photo op incident led to the resignation of the director of the White House Military Office.
When President Bush came to the end of his second term in 2009, a VC-25 was used to transport him to Texas. For this purpose the aircraft call sign was Special Air Mission 28000, as the aircraft did not carry the current President of the United States. Similar arrangements were made for former Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
On 26 December 2018, a VC-25A (92-9000) carrying President Donald Trump on a secret flight to a US military base in Iraq, using a fake hex code and callsign 'Reach 358' to disguise it, was spotted by an amateur aviation photographer on the ground in the United Kingdom before the visit was announced.
The VC-25As are to be replaced, as they have become less cost-effective to operate. On 28 January 2015, the Air Force announced that the Boeing 747-8 will serve as the next presidential aircraft. On 6 December 2016, then-President-elect Donald Trump tweeted his opposition to the Air Force One replacement due to its high cost of "more than $4 billion". The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated the total cost at $3.2 billion, and the U.S. Air Force's budget for the program is projected to be nearly $4 billion. In December 2016, Boeing was on contract for preliminary development worth $170 million.
On 1 August 2017, Defense One reported that in an effort to pay less for the replacement program, the U.S. Air Force has contracted to purchase two of the bankrupt Russian airline Transaero's undelivered 747-8 Intercontinentals from Boeing, which is storing them in the Mojave Desert to prevent corrosion. These airplanes, which were flight-tested but never delivered, will be retrofitted with telecommunications and security equipment to bring them to the required security level for the presidential aircraft.
Other presidential aircraft
During the Johnson Administration, the United States Air Force acquired a Beechcraft King Air B90 which was designated VC-6A. The aircraft was used to transport President Johnson between Bergstrom Air Force Base and his family ranch near Johnson City, Texas, and was used at least once to transport the President to Princeton, New Jersey. It was referred to as Lady Bird's airplane and later in its service life featured a basic color scheme similar to civilian aircraft. When the President was aboard, the aircraft used the call sign Air Force One.
United Airlines is the only commercial airline to have operated Executive One, the call sign given to a civilian flight on which the U.S. President is aboard. On 26 December 1973, President Richard Nixon and his family flew as commercial passengers on a United DC-10 from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles International Airport. His staff explained that this was done to conserve fuel by not having to fly the usual Boeing 707 Air Force aircraft.
In November 1999, President Bill Clinton flew from Ankara, Turkey, to Cengiz Topel Naval Air Station outside Izmit, Turkey, aboard a marked C-20C (Gulfstream III) using the call sign "Air Force One", escorted by three F-16s.
On 8 March 2000, President Clinton flew to Pakistan aboard an unmarked Gulfstream III while another aircraft with the call sign "Air Force One" flew on the same route a few minutes later. This diversion was reported by several U.S. press outlets.
On 1 May 2003, President George W. Bush flew in the co-pilot seat of a Sea Control Squadron Thirty-Five (VS-35) S-3B Viking from Naval Air Station North Island, California to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast, where Bush delivered his "Mission Accomplished" speech. During the flight, the aircraft used the call sign of "Navy One" for the first time. This aircraft is now on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.
Aircraft on display
Several presidential aircraft that have formerly served as Air Force One (Sacred Cow, Independence, Columbine III, SAM 26000, and other smaller presidential aircraft) are on display in the presidential hangar of the National Museum of the United States Air Force (located at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio) and at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington (earlier VC-137B SAM 970). The Boeing VC-137C that served as Air Force One from the Nixon years through the George H. W. Bush administration (SAM 27000) is on display in Simi Valley, California at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The library's Air Force One Pavilion was opened to the public on 24 October 2005.
A Lockheed JetStar which was used by Lyndon Johnson during his presidency is on display at the LBJ Ranch (now the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park) in Stonewall, Texas. The ranch had a runway, but was too small to accommodate a large plane such as a Boeing 707. President Johnson would take the larger Air Force One to Bergstrom AFB in Austin, where he would transfer to the smaller JetStar for the short flight to the ranch.
A McDonnell Douglas VC-9C used by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton is on display at Castle Air Museum in Atwater, California, adjacent to the former Castle Air Force Base. Another VC-9C has been at DAFB Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, DE since 2011.
Notable appearances in media
Air Force One is shown as being equipped with a one-person escape pod and parachutes for emergency use by the President of the United States in at least five films: Escape from New York, Air Force One, White House Down, Bermuda Tentacles, and Big Game. However, the actual Air Force One does not have an escape pod or parachutes for emergency use.
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