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Air Force One: A History of Presidential Air Travel

Myers’ C-54 was special. It was the first transport designed and built to be a presidential airplane. The term Air Force One did not yet exist, and C-54C no. 42-107451 was known at first simply as “Project 51” and later as the Flying White House. Most in Washington referred to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal plane by the informal name it had been given, the Sacred Cow. Myers’ co-pilot was Capt. Elmer Smith, who later retired as a colonel.

Roosevelt used the Sacred Cow for only one overseas trip, but it was his most important.

Retired Major Robert C. Mikesh, an authority on presidential aircraft, describes the way the Sacred Cow had been tailored to Roosevelt’s needs:

Eisenhower columbine II

President Eisenhower’s VC-121A, dubbed Columbine II, seen at Washington National Airport in 1954. U.S. Air Force via Robert F. Dorr

“[The] most unique feature of this aircraft was that it contained a battery-operated elevator, located aft of the main passenger cabin, which could lift a passenger directly from the ground to the cabin-level floor. This elevator represented a security measure as well as a convenience. The president’s need to walk with crutches or use a wheelchair was an important factor in developing ‘Project 51.’ In the past, it had been necessary to construct bulky ramps to aid Mr. Roosevelt in embarking or debarking from an airplane. The very presence of such ramps at a foreign airfield suggested the impending arrival of FDR. Advance notification of the president as an incoming passenger was, of course, undesirable during World War II. The elevator eliminated the need for telltale ramps.”

The aircraft had a bullet-proof picture window. A 7.5 by 12-foot stateroom occupied the aft portion of the cabin, providing seating for seven. Included was a sofa that opened electrically into a bed, two electrically folding chairs, and a full galley. In addition to pilot Myers, a crew of six manned the airplane. The stewards were nicknamed “hotcuppers” because they were equipped with electric hotcup devices to heat coffee and soup.

The interior of Roosevelt’s C-54 was furnished with upholstery of blue worsted wool. Draperies at the windows were of blue gabardine, on which was embroidered the insignia of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. The aircraft was provided with dishes, silverware, and other amenities.

Roosevelt used the Sacred Cow for only one overseas trip, but it was his most important.

 

Presidential Travel

Crossing the Atlantic aboard the heavy cruiser Quincy, the president arrived on the island of Malta. On Feb. 3, 1945, he boarded the Sacred Cow for a trip to Yalta in the Soviet Union. He met with Churchill and Russia’s Josef Stalin until Feb. 12, then re-boarded the Sacred Cow for a flight to Cairo, Egypt, where he rejoined the Quincy for the trip home.

When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, the Sacred Cow became President Harry S Truman’s aircraft. As the 33rd president (1945-1953), Truman became first to fly on a regular basis. He used the Sacred Cow to travel to Kansas City, Mo., on his way to a visit to his hometown in Independence, Mo. – the first domestic air trip by a president.

Ever sensitive to perceptions, officials in Washington grimaced when an aviation magazine began calling the new plane the “Sacred Cow II.”

The Sacred Cow performed White House duty until 1947. It served into the 1960s and is displayed today at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

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