The incredible history of Air Force One

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Air Force One is instantly recognisable — both as the aeroplane of the President of the United States and as a flying symbol of American military and economy might. With its hand-polished blue, white, and silver livery, it boldly proclaims the arrival of the powerful man in the world.

What many people don’t know is that there isn’t one, but two nearly identical Boeing jets that serve as the official transport of the President. Normally, the planes are referred to by their tail numbers — 28000 and 29000 — but when the Commander and Chief steps on board, they take on the call sign “Air Force One”. In fact, Presidential aeroplanes didn’t begin using the Air Force One designation until 1959.

The President’s pair of Boeing VC-25A jets are operated by the Presidential Airlift Group out of Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. While the current Boeing 747-based planes have been in service for more than two decades, they’re simply the latest in a long-line of flying White Houses.

Here’s a look back at the history America’s presidential aeroplanes.

It all started with Theodore Roosevelt -- a true American pioneer. Which is why our 26th President is also the first to fly in an aeroplane. More than a year after leaving office, he flew in a Wright Flyer on October 10, 1910.

Wikimedia Commons


It wasn't until 1933 did the US Government actually acquire an aircraft specifically for Presidential travel. That year, a Douglas Dolphin amphibious plane -- similar to the one pictured below -- was specially outfitted for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Unfortunately, FDR never flew in the Dolphin.

Wikimedia Commons

Popular Mechanics

Instead, the first official Presidential flight took place on January 14, 1943 when FDR crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a Boeing 314 Clipper -- similar to the one pictured below -- on a trip to Casablanca, Morocco.

The Boeing Company

History Channel

The first aircraft to be custom built for presidential use is a Douglas VC-54C nicknamed 'Sacred Cow.' The Sacred Cow famously transported Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference.

On July 4, 1947, Truman replaced the Sacred Cow with a new aircraft -- a Douglas VC-118. The new plane was christened 'Independence' after the 33rd President's hometown in Missouri. On August 31st of that year, It made its first official presidential trip to a conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

US Air Force/Ken LaRock

The VC-118 is a civilian Douglas DC-6 -- the 26th to roll off the production line -- that was modified on orders from the Air Force for Presidential duty. The Independence has room for 24 seated passengers or 12 sleeper berths.

US Air Force/Ken LaRock

It also features dedicated meeting space for the President and...

US Air Force/Ken LaRock

... A full kitchen. The aircraft served in the presidential fleet until 1953.

US Air Force/Ken LaRock

That year, a Lockheed Constellation -- christened 'Columbine II' after the state flower of Colorado -- took over the presidential flying duties. In 1953, an air traffic controller confused the aeroplane carrying President Eisenhower with an Eastern Airlines flight using a similar call sign. The incident helped bring about the use of the designation 'Air Force One.'

In November of 1954, the US Air Force took delivery of a new personal aircraft for President Eisenhower -- a heavily modified Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation called the VC-121E. In fact, it was the only VC-121E ever built. Christened the 'Columbine III', the Lockheed plane served the President until 1961.

US Air Force/Ken LaRock

US Air Force Museum

The VC-121E would be the last non-jet-powered plane to serve as the official presidential aircraft.

US Air Force/Ken LaRock

That's because on October 10, 1962, the US Air Force and President John F. Kennedy took delivery a new Boeing 707-320B-based VC-137C known as Special Air Mission or SAM 26000.

US Air Force/ Ken LaRock

US Air Force Museum

Even though President Eisenhower had been known to use Air Force Boeing VC-137A jets during his time in office, SAM 26000 was first purpose-built presidential jet transport.

US Air Force

Decked out in blue, white, and silver with the words 'United States of America' emblazoned on its side, SAM 26000's livery became the most iconic in aviation history. The aeroplane's look is the brainchild of legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is also said to have contributed to the stunning design.

US Air Force

New York Times

Unfortunately, President Kennedy didn't get to use SAM 26000 for very long. The 35th President of the United States was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn-in as our nation's 36th Commander and Chief on board SAM 26000.

US Air Force

The aircraft was also tasked with transporting the President Kennedy's body back to Washington. Here, the President's coffin is unloaded at Andrews Air Force based under the guidance of the First Lady.

US Air Force

Post Kennedy, SAM 26000 went on to serve as the primary presidential aircraft for the Johnson and...

US Air Force

During its 36-year career, SAM 26000 flew eight sitting presidents including Ford, Nixon, and Carter -- pictured here.

US Air Force
Presidents Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter.

In 1972, President Nixon took delivery of a second VC-137C call sign SAM 27000. The new plane took over as the President's primary aircraft with SAM 26000 serving as the backup.

The President that clocked the most miles on board SAM 27000 was Ronald Reagan.

Which why the plane can now be found at the Reagan Presidential Library.

By the mid-1980s, the Air Force's fleet of VC-137Cs were beginning to show their age.

US Air Force

After several delays, the duo of Boeing 747-200 derived VC-25A jets entered service in 1990 during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

In 2015, the US Air Force announced that it will order a pair of new Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental-based presidential aircraft set to enter service in 2024.


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