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Air Force One: A History of Presidential Air Travel

Presidents and politics change. Since aviation began, one fact has remained constant: Each president has flown more than his predecessor. Today, Air Force One has become an office in the sky where routine work is performed. It was not always so, especially in early years when many thought flying was dangerous.

Theodore Roosevelt became the first president to fly in an aircraft, although it didn’t happen during his years as president (1901-1909). After seeking out a personal friendship with Wilbur and Orville Wright, while participating in the Missouri State Republican campaign in St. Louis, Mo., on Oct. 11, 1910, Roosevelt was invited to fly in a Wright Type B biplane. The pilot was Arch Hoxsey. By sitting in a shuddering biplane made of wood and fabric, Roosevelt willingly defied the conventional wisdom of what was safe and what was not. It was fitting behavior for a war hero who eventually became the only president to receive both the Nobel Prize and the Medal of Honor. Surviving motion picture footage shows Roosevelt arriving at the Kinloch aviation field accompanied by Herbert S. Hadley, governor of Missouri. Roosevelt eases into his passenger seat, flies, and descends to join his waiting party. He later commented to a New York Times reporter, “You know I didn’t intend to do it, but when I saw the thing there, I could not resist it.” Hoxsey died in a plane crash a year later.

Roosevelt first flight

Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to fly in an airplane. On Oct. 11, 1910, Theodore flew off from Aviation Field in St. Louis, Missouri with pilot Arch Hoxsey. Library of Congress photo

Roosevelt’s successors, William Howard Taft (1909-1913), Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), Warren Harding (1921-1923), Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929), and Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) never left the surface of the planet while in office.

Before his tenure as president (1933-1945), Franklin D. Roosevelt flew several times, most famously in July 1932 when a Ford Tri-Motor took him from Albany, N.Y., to Chicago, Ill., to attend the Democratic convention.

In 1936, a Navy Douglas RD-2 Dolphin amphibian was assigned to presidential support duties. The plane was the subject of a letter from the commander of Naval Air Station Anacostia in Washington, D.C., to the chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, reading in part:

“Although not exclusively used for the President and the Secretary of the Navy, this plane was set aside to carry the mail to the President when he was embarked in the Potomac and it was used by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy … for official transportation. It is very necessary to have a plane of this type on this station at all times for transportation of mail and guests of the President.”

Truman AC

The VC-54C “Sacred Cow” serving as President Harry Truman’s airplane on the runway at Washington’s National Airport, before it departed to carry the President home to Independence, Missouri for the holidays, Dec. 25, 1945. National Archives

The Army procured a dedicated presidential aircraft, the transport version of the Consolidated B-24D Liberator four-engined heavy bomber known as a C-87A, and named Guess Where II. The plane carried first lady Eleanor Roosevelt – but never her husband.

Navy records are ambiguous as to whether the service intended the Dolphin specifically to carry the chief executive. An Army Curtiss YC-30 Condor twin-engined biplane stationed at Bolling Field, D.C., in the late 1930s was believed by many to be earmarked as a presidential aircraft. Roosevelt did not fly in the Dolphin or the Condor.


First into the Air

Still, the first president to fly in an aircraft while an occupant of the White House was none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt. It happened during World War II. Many around the 32nd president regarded aviation as dangerous. There was no rule, written or unwritten, against the chief executive flying in an aircraft, but a number of Roosevelt’s advisers were against it.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...