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Air Force One: A History of Presidential Air Travel

A little-known fact about Ike is that he was a pilot, indeed the first president licensed to pilot an airplane, having soloed a Stearman PT-13 biplane trainer in the Philippines in 1936. Aboard his new presidential aircraft, however, Eisenhower was strictly a passenger. By the time 48-610 was tapped for presidential duty, the aircraft had already carried President-Elect Eisenhower on his famous Far East trip of November 1952, fulfilling his campaign pledge to visit the war in Korea.

To become a flying White House for the new president, the Constellation was removed from service and modified with the installation of a customized suite amidships. The 20-foot long interior cabin was equipped with two brown leather swiveling chairs, a table, and two davenport couches that opened into beds. A large lavatory was installed in the tail section.

Forward of the presidential cabin were two duplicate cabins, each providing seating for 16 or sleeping berths for eight.

Because of its very important passenger, Columbine II became a VC-121A, the “V” prefix signifying its role carrying dignitaries. The aircraft was equipped with the latest in flying instrumentation, including weather radar and Long Range Navigation (LORAN) equipment. A crew of 11 operated the VC-121A. Almost every aircraft used by presidents wore the “V” prefix at one time or another thereafter. The prefix has been added or removed under different administrations.

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