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Air Force One: A History of Presidential Air Travel

Andrews’ elite air wing took delivery of three VC-137As in this series (serial numbers 57-6970/6972, constructor’s numbers 17925/17927), none purchased expressly for the president.

Kennedy frequently used SAM 26000 (the VC-137C) and its backup, Queenie (a VC-137B). He made regular use of the Army and Marine helicopters now available to the chief executive.

Something else happened during this period. The president’s aircraft received a new radio call sign. Ike’s pilot, Draper, suggested it. To avoid confusion with any other aircraft on the radio, the term Air Force One was created. The term is well known today, but it took many years to become imprinted on public consciousness.


Marine Helicopters

Eisenhower became the first president to fly in a helicopter, initially an Air Force Bell H-13 and soon afterward the first “Marine One,” a Sikorsky HUS-1 Seahorse, later called an H-34.

The 1254th Air Transport Group became a wing on Dec. 1, 1960, and began preparing to receive the first jet aircraft explicitly designed for presidential travel. This aircraft was the first of two special 707-353Bs ordered in 1961, designated VC-137C and assigned serial number 62-6000 (constructor’s number 18461). For two decades, from Kennedy to Bush, this aircraft would be known to the public as Air Force One and simply as 26000 to those who flew it.


A Marine Helicopter Squadron 1 (HMX-1) VH-3D Sea King helicopter prepares to land on the south lawn of the White House. DOD photo

By then, the aircrews who transported the president were referring to themselves as the SAM Fox outfit. SAM was the abbreviation for special air mission, and Fox was the old phonetic term for the letter “F,” as in flight, so the term was a corruption of “special air mission flight.” The new presidential plane was Air Force One to the outside world, but to insiders it was SAM 26000.

To all who maintained it, worked on it, and flew it, SAM 26000 represented a new age, just like the new and youthful president, John F. Kennedy (1961-1963), who seemed not to be living the past but pointing to the future.

First lady Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned designer Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) to devise a new paint scheme for the White House’s new jet. Loewy was designer of the Studebaker Avanti automobile, the Pennsylvania Railroad paint scheme, and the Ritz cracker logo.

VH-3D Obama

President Barack Obama disembarks Marine One, one of HMX-1’s venerable VH-3Ds that have come to be considered the de facto presidential helicopter. The replacement VH-71 presidential helicopter is not yet in service. DOD photo

Loewy may have been inspired by the blue and white paint design that had adorned Eisenhower’s twin-engined L-26B Aero Commander, the small plane Ike used to travel to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He gave SAM 26000 a similar paint scheme, one that has remained in effect until today. To make the colors match as planned, Loewy even toned down the blue in the national insignia.

President Kennedy flew 26000 for the first time in November 1962. In June, Kennedy used the aircraft when he flew to Ireland and Germany, where he made his famous “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech. A month earlier, while taking a U.S. delegation to Moscow, 26000 broke 30 speed records, including the fastest nonstop flight between the United States and the Soviet Union.

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