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Air Force One: A History of Presidential Air Travel

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. But Kennedy’s favorite aircraft was a prop-driven C-118A, a close relative of the Independence, used by his predecessor once removed, Harry S Truman.

This C-118A (serial 53-3240) was delivered to the 1254th at Washington National Airport on Dec. 23, 1955. In July 1961, it moved with the wing to Andrews. During this period, it carried Kennedy to his home in Hyannisport, Mass., on numerous occasions.

SAM 26000

Sadly, SAM 26000’s greatest fame may have been as the location where Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. AP Photo/White House, Cecil Stoughton

SAM 26000 flew the Kennedys to Dallas Nov. 22, 1963. When news that the president had been shot reached Col. James Swindall, he prepared the aircraft for immediate departure. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was also in Dallas. Fearing a wider conspiracy, Secret Service agents rushed now-President Johnson (1963-1969) to the safety of the aircraft. Because communications equipment on 26000 was superior to the aircraft Johnson flew to Dallas, the decision was made that Johnson should wait aboard 26000 for Jacqueline Kennedy and her husband’s body. Before 26000 could leave Dallas, President Johnson took the oath of office on board the aircraft. At Arlington cemetery, as the president’s body was being lowered into the ground, 26000 flew overhead at 1,000 feet and dipped its wings in final salute.


Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon B. Johnson’s new plane was the first of two VC-137Cs. Although it carried special communications equipment, its interior furnishings were little different from those of the three VC-137A/B (Boeing 707-153) aircraft also assigned to Andrews Air Force Base. During Kennedy’s tenure and indeed for a decade to follow, there was only a single Boeing 707 or VC-137C assigned specifically to presidential duties, but it was continuously backed up by the ubiquitous VC-137A/B known as Queenie. The second presidential 707, or VC-137C, serial number 72-7000 (c/n 20630) joined the first only in 1972.

Johnson, who liked to call the VC-137C “my own little plane,” also used a variety of aircraft to travel to his Texas ranch, including the C-118A, a VC-6A Queen Air, the C-131H Samaritan, and the C-140 JetStar. Whether it was a sleek Boeing 707 or a chugging, sputtering C-131H, no other president was so adept as Johnson at giving out the perk of a ride aboard Air Force One – or withholding it – but all presidents have used their magic carpet in the sky as a way of influencing other leaders.

Nixon SAM 27000

Vice President Nixon during a trip to the U.S.S.R. in happier times. Years later, SAM 27000 would fly the recently resigned president home. Library of Congress photo

When Richard Nixon became the 37th president on Jan. 20, 1969, he began using the much-traveled VC-137C immediately. Nixon (1969-1974) was in office less than a month when he made his first trip abroad on SAM 26000, to Vietnam. In July 1969, President Nixon flew aboard SAM 26000 on a 13-day trip to six countries, culminating in a stop to link up with the Apollo 11 crew in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Beginning in 1970, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger used SAM 26000 to take the first of 13 secret meetings with officials from North Vietnam. Flying these secret missions was a major undertaking. They were even kept secret from the secretary of defense, secretary of state, and director of central intelligence. In 1971, Nixon gave 26000 an official name, The Spirit of ‘76, in honor of the coming bicentennial. A year later the name was transferred to the newly arrived second VC-137C, SAM 27000, but most continued to refer to it as Air Force One. In February 1972, SAM 26000 flew President Nixon on his historic visit to China, the first step in normalizing relations with the world’s most populous country.


Army Helicopter

While SAM 26000 received improvements for its role as Air Force One, the Marine Corps and Army continued to share the mission of hauling the chief executive on short trips via helicopter. By now, Army helicopters were part of an Executive Flight Detachment, commanded during Nixon’s term by Lt. Col. Gene Boyer. He was also the pilot who flew Nixon from the White House to Andrews when the president resigned in August 1974. Co-pilot on that flight was CW4 Carl Burhanan. Nixon made his last flight from the White House lawn in Army One.

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