With the H-34 now retired, Marines and soldiers were flying the Sikorsky VH-3A (“a blend of the civilian Sikorsky S-61 and the Navy SH-3A,” according to a pilot) and Bell VH-1N Iroquois (Huey) helicopters. All wore the same color scheme and the same words on the fuselage: “United States of America.” Clint Downing, one of the Army helicopter pilots, said, “The only way you could distinguish which crew was flying was by their uniforms.” In 1976, the decision was made to close the Army flight detachment and turn the helicopter mission over to the Marines exclusively.
Gerald Ford (1974-1977) became the nation’s 38th president on Aug. 9, 1974, when Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal. After Army One flew him to Andrews on his last day in office, Nixon departed for California aboard SAM 27000. On takeoff, the aircraft used the call sign Air Force One. The aircraft was approaching the Mississippi when the hour of noon arrived and Gerald Ford’s new job became official. As the flight continued westward, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Kansas City Air Control received the following radio transmission: “Kansas City, this is former Air Force One, please change our call sign to SAM 27000.” No longer president, Nixon continued his flight to California.
In the mid-1980s, the Air Force went shopping for a new presidential airplane …
After Ford’s 30-month tenure, Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) became the 39th president on Jan. 20, 1977. Even before he took office, Time magazine wrote of his wish to make the presidency less regal: “He wants to minimize the use of Air Force One and to ride in an armored Ford LTD instead of the bigger and fancier Continental limousine most Presidents have used.”
Carter ordered the “V” prefix on aircraft designations removed, so SAM 27000, no longer a VC-137C, became merely a C-137C. The same change was made with other VIP aircraft at Andrews. Carter also ordered a toning-down of the markings on Air Force One and other VIP transports.
Carter’s paring-down of the visibility of Air Force One did not last long. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) undid all of it when he took office as the 40th U.S. president on Jan. 20, 1981. Reagan restored the “V” prefixes to all of the transports at Andrews.
In the mid-1980s, the Air Force went shopping for a new presidential airplane, which it hoped to have in service before Reagan left office. Because the Air Force wanted a full flight deck (two pilots, plus a flight engineer and navigator) at a time when most large airplanes were flown by just two pilots, and because it insisted on four engines at a time when oceans were being spanned by planes with two engines, the only serious candidate was the first-generation version of the Boeing 747.
Over the years, many presidential aircraft were retired from duty. During the 1990s, the last of these (but for the two shiny, new 747s) was VC-137C SAM 27000.
The contract for the presidential 747-2G4B was placed in July 1986. The two VC-25As were allocated the contrived serial numbers 86-8800 and 86-8900 (later replaced by 82-8000 and 92-8000, even though an Air Force serial is supposed to begin with the last two digits of the fiscal year in which it was ordered). The first aircraft made its maiden flight at Everett, Wash., on May 16, 1987, followed by the second on Oct. 29, 1987. Boeing pilots flew them to Wichita, where they were outfitted.
There were delays in completing the equipping of the planes, and the work was not yet completed when President George Bush (1989-1993) took office on Jan. 20, 1989. That day, the 89th Airlift Wing named Col. Robert C. “Danny” Barr presidential pilot, replacing Col. Robert E. Ruddick. The first VC-25A was formally accepted by the Air Force on Aug. 23, 1990. It began flying President Bush almost immediately. The second aircraft was delivered on Dec. 20, 1990.
Over the years, many presidential aircraft were retired from duty. During the 1990s, the last of these (but for the two shiny, new 747s) was VC-137C SAM 27000. Even after the 747s were in service, 27000 continued to serve Bush, President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), and President George W. Bush (2001-present). By then, the presidential pilot was Col. Mark Donnelly, replaced in April 2001 by Col. Mark Tillman. Also by then, President Bush had followed the example set by chief executives before him: Each president has flown more than his predecessors, meaning that more things happen aboard the presidential aircraft from one president’s term to the next.
When SAM 27000 was finally retired after carrying every president from Nixon to the current President Bush, the plane was flown out to California to be donated to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. Officials of all kinds, from the Air Force secretary to a former steward, were on board for the ceremonial flight on a glorious, sunny Saturday. 89th Airlift Wing Commander Col. Glenn Spears, now a brigadier general, was on board. Campbell Brown of NBC News went along and recorded the event. Former first lady Nancy Reagan met the plane and its party on arrival in California and a ceremony was held. It was a joyous day for all involved. The date was Sept. 8, 2001.
Three days later, the United States came under attack and the new presidential aircraft, the VC-25A or 747, played a pivotal role in President Bush’s activity on September 11. For most of the nation, that day was a reminder that presidential aircraft have always been more than mere tools of transportation, and that the current Air Force One is more than an attractive aircraft that provides comfortable travel. In the end, the presidential plane is a military aircraft with a military mission. In a crisis, it can be a command post in the sky for the commander-in-chief. Air Force One is an office in the sky, but it is also a means by which the nation’s leader can press ahead with one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
This article was first published in The Sam Fox Story: Serving Our Nation’s Leaders, 89th Airlift Wing, Andrew’s AFB, Maryland.