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Air Force One: A History of Presidential Air Travel

Columbine II is still flying today, the only presidential aircraft to have ended up in the hands of a civilian owner. In 1954, Air Force leaders decided it was time for Eisenhower to have a new aircraft. With considerable input from pilot Draper, officials decided on a Lockheed 1049C Super Constellation, a longer, heavier aircraft with greater fuel capacity and more interior space.

… President Eisenhower made his first trip in the new aircraft, flying to Augusta, Ga.

The new aircraft was known in military jargon as a VC-121E Super Constellation (serial number 53-7885, constructor’s number 4151) and was given the inevitable name Columbine III.

Draper brought the aircraft to Washington National Airport on Sept. 10, 1954. First lady Mamie Eisenhower conducted a christening ceremony on Nov. 24 using a bottle of Rocky Mountain spring water flown in from her beloved Colorado. That day, President Eisenhower made his first trip in the new aircraft, flying to Augusta, Georgia.

SAM 27000

SAM 27000, the second VC-137C. The VC-137s brought presidential air travel into the jet age. Photo courtesy of Boeing

Columbine III spent six years as a presidential aircraft. When Ike wasn’t traveling, the VC-121E carried other government officials. Ike flew only about 30,000 miles per year.


Switch to Jets

During the Eisenhower administration, the jet engine became the primary source of power for new military, civil, and commercial aircraft. In an era when corporations took more risks than today, Boeing gambled $16 million on the revolution it saw coming. On July 15, 1954, a yellow and maroon four-jet prototype aircraft took to the skies over Seattle, dubbed the Boeing 367-80. To those who worked on it and flew it, the aircraft was simply the “Dash 80.” The Air Force eventually acquired 820 Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers, based on the Dash 80 and known in manufacturer’s jargon as Boeing 717s. Test pilots “Dix” Loesch and “Tex” Johnston took the first KC-135A aloft for its maiden flight on Aug. 31, 1956.

The first production Boeing 707 (constructor’s number 17586) took to the air at Renton, Wash., on Dec. 20, 1957. Promoting glamour and sophistication, the airlines went for the graceful and futuristic Boeing 707 without hesitation and with relatively few teething troubles.


President Kennedy with Gov. Pat Brown and Stanley Mosk after disembarking Air Force One at Los Angeles International Airport, Nov. 18, 1961. JFK Library photo

The Air Force picked the 707 for presidential duty. It became C-137A or VC-137A, and was converted later in its career to C-137B standard. Meanwhile, the 89th wing, now at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., took delivery of the first military Boeing 707-153, a VC-137A model (58-6970, later named Queenie).

The VC-137A introduced a special communications section located in the forward fuselage, ahead of an eight-seat passenger compartment. The center cabin was configured as an airborne headquarters with conference table, swivel chairs, film projector, and divans convertible to beds. The aft compartment contained 14 reclining passenger seats.

On Aug. 26, 1959, Ike completed the first presidential flight aboard Queenie (and the first aboard a jet), flying to Germany for a meeting with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

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