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Air Force One: A History of Presidential Air Travel

 

Truman’s Independence

In 1946, the Army Air Forces made arrangements with Douglas Aircraft to acquire a production DC-6 airliner for executive use by the president. The plane became the first American military transport to use and test reversible-pitch propellers, as well as the first with water injection in the engine for added thrust on takeoff. Truman’s new plane was equipped with experimental weather radar (the first in a DC-6), a radar altimeter, autopilot, and other advanced navigation equipment. The Independence could reach any location in the continental United States nonstop.

American Airlines relinquished the 29th position for a DC-6 on the production line to enable the Army to acquire an early aircraft, constructor’s number 42881, and the Army assigned the serial 46-505 and the designation C-118. The plane became the only C-118 ever to serve in the Air Force, although the service later cquired numerous DC-6A airplanes, designated C-118A. The new plane for President Harry S Truman differed from civilian DC-6s in having three closely grouped windows on the rear starboard side of the fuselage.

This was the location of the presidential stateroom, entered through a bleached-mahogany door bearing the Great Seal of the United States. The room was decorated in chocolate brown, dark blue, and gray. The interior of the aircraft was configured to carry 25 passengers (compared with 52 in the airliner). The main cabin could sleep 12.

Columbine III, a VC-121E Super Constellation, was longer and heavier than its predecessor and had more interior space, boasting a 3,500-mile range. Norm Taylor Collection via Robert F. Dorr

Columbine III, a VC-121E Super Constellation, was longer and heavier than its predecessor and had more interior space, boasting a 3,500-mile range. Norm Taylor Collection via Robert F. Dorr

Ever sensitive to perceptions, officials in Washington grimaced when an aviation magazine began calling the new plane the “Sacred Cow II.” Throughout the history of presidential air travel, officials would worry about the American taxpayer perceiving it as too glamorous or, worse, too ostentatious. To head off the unwanted name, Myers chose the name Independence, which was the name of Truman’s hometown in Missouri but also, in Myers’ view, a name with a “national flavor.”

 

Air Force

On July 27, 1947, Truman was aboard the Independence when he affixed his signature to the National Security Act (effective Sep. 18), which, among other things, established the U.S. Air Force as a separate military service branch. The act also created the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency.

On Jan. 6, Col. Francis T. Williams replaced Myers as the presidential pilot. Myers returned to his civilian job as a pilot with American Airlines. On June 1, 1948, a new Military Air Transport Service (MATS) replaced the former Air Transport Command. The unit operating presidential airplanes at Washington National Airport was established as the 1254th Air Transport Squadron on Oct. 1, 1948, following the consolidation of several units. The presidential outfit underwent several name changes before evolving into today’s 89th Airlift Wing: When founded, Williams commanded it.

Long before the term Air Force One entered the nation’s lexicon, two Lockheed Constellation transports provided transportation for President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961.

Kennedy AFOne

The VC-137s we knew as Air Force One weren’t always painted in the familiar scheme we’ve grown used to. This red, white, and natural metal livery was later replaced by Raymond Loewy’s scheme of two blues, white, and natural metal for the Air Force VC-137s. Here President and Mrs. Kennedy debark Air Force One in Mexico City, Mexico, June 1962. National Archives photo

As supreme allied commander in Europe after World War II, Ike had traveled in a C-121A Constellation (airplane number 48-614) named the Columbine, after the state flower of Colorado, the home state of Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie.

 

Ike’s Choice

After moving into the White House on Jan. 20, 1953, Eisenhower used a C-121A (airplane number 48-610) operated by the 1254th Air Transport Group at Washington National Airport. The plane was dubbed Columbine II. The presidential pilot, Air Force Col. William G. “Bill” Draper, flew the aircraft, led the crew, and served Eisenhower as a military advisor. Draper had also been Ike’s pilot in Europe.

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