“Get off my plane.”
Outside of children who are big fans of those Planes movies, nowhere in American society is a single aircraft more iconic than Air Force One. When we fly our President around, we fly him in style, in a cutting-edge jet that can survive a direct blast from a nuclear bomb and is exclusively piloted by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Okay, neither of those things are true, but Air Force One is so mythic that a decent handful of you absolutely took us for our word there.
Air Force One is an American icon, both over and underappreciated at the same time. So we decided to take a moment to sit you down (you are sitting, right?) and tell you about the history of our President’s super expensive charter jet. And since we’re feeling generous, we’ll just let you know about every Air Force One plane that has ever existed, partly because we like to be as thorough as we can when it comes to discussing presidential aircraft, but mainly because we want as many excuses to post scenes from the movie Air Force One on our site.
Every Air Force One in American History
A pretty common thread in discussing Air Force One is to point out the technicality that the term is just an air traffic control call sign assigned to any aircraft that is carrying the President of the United States.
So yeah, you could strap the President to a lawn chair with a bunch of weather balloons and that would be called Air Force One. Still, when the average American hears those three words, they are thinking about the high end, super fancy plane that the President flies around on.
That plane, as it exists currently (and which is soon getting replaced) is pretty fucking fancy. It’s got enough fuel to fly one-third of the way around the world, though it can also be refueled during flight. It has a kitchen that can feed 100 people at a time, a medical suite where you can perform actual goddamn surgery, and a kickass arcade with over 20 old-school video games.
Okay that last one was a lie, but they could totally put one in there if they wanted, and they should.
The plane can jam enemy radar, eject flares to throw off heat-seeking missiles, and has electronics so well advanced they can actually survive the electromagnetic shock typically sent out by a nuclear bomb (so we weren’t totally lying about the whole surviving a nuke thing earlier). We’ve utilized a lot of pretty impressive technology to get where we are today in the Air Force One department.
That said, we haven’t always had these super planes, and we’ve plied our research department with liquor to find us every plane that ever had the claim to be Air Force One.
Here is a list of metal things that either have had a presidential butt sitting in its seats at one point, or were acquired specifically for use by the President of the United States.
Honorable Mention: Early Wright Flyer
Now, for a history lesson. Did you know—there was a time where Presidents did not fly anywhere? Shocking we know. Even Abraham Lincoln didn’t get his own airplane, largely due to the fact that airplanes weren’t even close to being invented at the time, but also, we assume, because of politics, man.
The first President to fly in an aircraft was Teddy Roosevelt, in 1910, which makes sense considering his reputation for being incredible at everything. He flew on an early Wright Flyer, and flew over a county fair. He was not in office at the time, but still gets credit as the first President in the air, which gives us an excuse to post the previous wonderful picture. Oh, and here it is on video if that’s not enough Teddy Roosevelt flying for your tastes.
Roosevelt was obviously a trailblazer, since it took another 20 years before we even started considering getting ourselves a plane for the President. That occurred in 1933 with the purchase of…
Dolphin Douglas RD2
The first President to actually fly in office was the other Roosevelt, but it wouldn’t happen on this plane. The Navy, thinking that there could be an occasion that required the President to get somewhere through the air, purchased a Douglas Dolphin amphibian, designated RD-2, and modified it to fit four passengers, with a small separate sleeping compartment.
Though that stayed in service as a presidential transport from 1933 to 1939, there are no actual reports that FDR ever flew in it. So this plane was designed for a President, but never actually housed one as far as we can tell. Really, there was no reason for the President to be flying during its years in service anyway, but World War II changed that, which is why the first plane to technically be able to refer to itself as Air Force One (which, admittedly, is a term that would not be used until the 1950s) was…
Boeing 314: The Dixie Clipper
Yes, you may giggle at the name. The first time FDR deemed it necessary to fly, we went up in a Boeing 314 flying boat called the Dixie Clipper to get to the 1943 Casablanca Conference in Morocco. Since the trip would cross the Atlantic for 5,500 miles, it was considered safer to attempt that trek in the air as opposed to in the sea, thanks to German U-Boats.
This flight, comically enough, wasn’t a military flight—the Dixie Clipper was run by Pan American World Airways, and flew with a Pan Am crew on board. That would basically be like having the President fly cross country with a Southwest Airlines crew, which actually we would love to see, because some of the better flight attendants are really good at turning the safety instructions into a show, and we’d like to think the President would appreciate that.
We quickly learned that we probably shouldn’t rely on the President flying to places on commercial airlines, so we went ahead and bought the first dedicated aircraft proposed explicitly for presidential transport (spoiler- it didn’t go over great).
Consolidated C-87 Liberator Express : The Guess Where II
The military decided that we should probably use a military aircraft to accommodate, you know, flying around the leader of the free world while there was a war going on, so they initially settled on a C-87A aircraft, numbered a bunch of white noise that you just glossed over with your eyes (fine it’s 41-24159).
In 1943, the plane was re-modified to serve as a presidential VIP aircraft and was given the name Guess Where II. It’s mission, if it chose to accept it, would be to carry Franklin D. Roosevelt on international trips.
This would have made it the first actual Air Force One, in that it was a non-commercial aircraft only to be used in presidential service. It didn’t choose to accept this mission, however, since C-87s had what was politely referred to as a “controversial safety record in service.”
Basically, the plane was garbage (one pilot referred to the C-87s as “an evil bastard contraption”) which probably isn’t the best place to put the last person you would want to see fall flaming down from the heavens. So with the Secret Service saying, “There’s no way in hell we’re putting the President on that plane” we moved to plan-B, the weirdly named…
Douglas C-54 Skymaster: The Sacred Cow
The hell kind of name is that? Anyway, we took this C-54 Skymaster, a much more dependable four-engined transport craft, and jazzed it up a bit for presidential purposes, adding a sleeping area, radio telephone, and retractable elevator to lift Roosevelt’s wheelchair on board. Roosevelt only managed to use it once in 1945, when he flew out for the Yalta Conference.
President Truman later would use the Sacred Cow in 1947, flying on the plane as he signed the National Security Act, which fittingly established the U.S. Air Force. That plane was decommissioned not long after Truman’s ride on it, and we have a few theories as to why. First of all, the Sacred Cow didn’t have a pressurized cabin, so you needed oxygen masks when it went up to high altitudes.
Another is that aviation technology was moving at a pretty rapid pace, so switching out Air Force One with a newer model after every few years like it’s an iPhone probably made sense at the time. Or, finally, maybe Trumam felt a little weird being on a plane with a wheelchair elevator meant for the dead President he just took the job from. Either way, in 1947, Truman got himself a new toy, this one called…
Douglas C-118 Liftmaster: The Independence
Truman named the plane himself, after his hometown, and landed on a name far better than Dixie Clipper and about a million times better than Sacred Cow. This C-118 Liftmaster (also known commercially as the DC-6 and the R6D in the Navy and the “Ughhh we don’t give as shit” by you, reading this, right now) was the first Air Force One to have a specific external decoration that separated it from a standard plane—in this case, the nose had a bald eagle head painted on it.
It’s nice to know that The White House and a biker named Bruce both go to the same paint job guys. The aft fuselage was converted into a stateroom, and the main cabin was big enough for 24 passengers (or 12 sleeping passengers).
We like the fact that the amount of people you put on this plane depended on if you wanted sleeping berths put in or not, though that was probably not as essential as we were not even close to getting to the “technically can stay in the air indefinitely” set up we have today.
All of these planes, though technically “Air Force Ones” in that they transported, or were built to transport, the President of the United States, were not officially designated as the Air Force One. That changed under Eisenhower with…
Lockheed VC-121A-LO Constellation: The Columbine II
The origin of Air Force One came from a mistake that was so common sense we’re kind of amazed we didn’t have a presidential mid-air collision before figuring out our mistake. Well, actually, the way we figured out our mistake because we totally almost had a presidential mid-air collision.
You see, at this time, we would just give a flight number to each presidential flight. So, in 1953, while on the Columbine II, one of two propeller driven planes Eisenhower added to the presidential fleet, Air Force One flew under the flight number of Air Force 8610.
If you’re thinking, “Well, hey, it’s not like another airline would have a flight numbered 8610 at the same time right?” well you’re giving the 1950s way too much credit. Yes, Eastern Airlines had a commercial flight with the same number, and the two absolutely entered the same airspace. So yeah, smooth move there guys.
From that point on, every presidential aircraft, while in the air, would have the unique call sign of “Air Force One.” They set that up right away and…oh wait what’s that, the first official flight of an Air Force One was in 1959, six years after that incident? Oh for fuck’s sake, America.
Anyway, the Columbine II, which was the only primary presidential airplane to ever be sold, and which has been rusting away at the Marana Regional Airport in Arizona since 2003, was named after the columbine, the official state flower of Colorado, which happened to be the adopted home state of the First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower.
The technology was updated with air-to-ground telephones and air-to-ground teletype machines added meaning that, if we know anything about technology, and we absolutely don’t, Air Force One in the 50s was a fairly early adapter of wireless telephone technology.
Or not, who knows, but it would make sense at least. We only really flew it a year (so despite it being the first Air Force One due to, you know, almost crashing, it never got to go on the official maiden flight of the Air Force One call sign) before slightly upgrading and going with…
Lockheed VC-121A-LO Constellation: Columbine III
About a year after sending up the Columbine II, the Columbine III was added to the presidential fleet. It was pretty much the same as its predecessor, though a great deal was made about its ability to make non-stop transcontinental flight, which we’re going to assume Columbine II couldn’t do.
It lasted in service for a while, with us christening it (do planes get christened like boats?) in 1954, and Eisenhower making use of it until he left office in 1961. It was joined in 1956 by two additional planes for the presidential fleet, one of which has the distinction of being the smallest Air Force One we’ve ever had.
Aero Commander L-26C (U-4B) and Additional Aero Commander
While Eisenhower added two Aero Commanders to the presidential fleet, we can only find the name of the L-26C. Look how tiny it is! It only fits four people, and it was primarily used to shuttle Eisenhower from his farm in Gettysburg to Washington, DC on short notice after he had to spend a few weeks on his personal estate to recover from a heart attack.
Helicopters weren’t able to do the trick at the time, so this little guy, and its brother (or sister? Again, we don’t know much about planes, which makes our decision to write an in-depth article on planes very confusing) would shuttle the President for those short flights.
It was the first plane to get the now-familiar white-and-blue paint job that we associate with the Air Force One. However, we’re still not in Air Force One territory, because since it took us until 1959 to realize that we should probably have a single call sign for the President’s plane, we had to wait for…
VC-137 SAM 970, 971 and 972
In 1958, Eisenhower added three Boeing 707 (VC-137) jets into the presidential service, which were called SAM (short for Special Air Mission) 970, 971 and 972. These were the first jet planes to be put into the presidential fleet, and the first that look more like sleek, modern planes as opposed to rickety death traps you’d use to take an unlicensed charter flight in Panama.
One of these three was the first Air Force One, though all three are not really discussed much. Their main contribution to the American Presidency was that Eisenhower took one of them on his “flight to Peace” Goodwill tour, where we suspect the Air Force One call sign was used in an official capacity.
He flew 22,000 miles, visiting 11 Asian nations, and did the trip about twice as fast as he would have in one of the Columbines which, again, look like the kinds of planes they used in the movie Casablanca. The SAM 970, with its brothers, also came with flying Oval Offices with communication equipment that at least matched, but most undoubtedly surpassed, their predecessors.
These three get a bit short changed in history, because while they were the first to look like sleek, modern aircraft, they were replaced after just three years, though the jets remained in the presidential fleet (to fly VIPs and vice-presidents because vice-presidents are the middle children of democracy) up until June of 1996.
Yes that’s right, these suckers stayed in pretty constant use for another 28 years. That’s pretty impressive, though not as impressive as…
VC-137C SAM 26000
Okay, so we clearly gave up on trying to give our Air Force One jets fancy names, but this was important enough to get its own fancy Wikipedia page. Here we have the first ever aircraft to be specifically configured and maintained for use by the President of the United States—up until this point we were just taking good jets, tinkering around with the insides, and considering that to be good enough.
JFK decided to purchase this Boeing C-137 Stratoliner, a modified long-range Boeing 707, in October, 1962. It cost $8 million to build, with a specific exterior designed in part by Jaqueline Kennedy and Raymond Loewy, a prominent industrial designer who probably rolled his eyes super hard at having to take suggestions from the boss’s wife. The color scheme must have worked out pretty well, though, as it’s still the one we use today.
This too lasted for some time—it was the primary means of transport for Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon before it was replaced in 1972, but it was the official backup Air Force One until it was retired in 1998.
That means that yes, this is the plane that totally flew Kennedy’s coffin, and it is where LBJ was sworn in as President making it, we guess, the first Air Force One to carry a presidential corpse, as well as the first one where an Oath of Office occurred. LBJ by far spent the most time on the plane, logging in over a million miles, while altering the interior by installing rearward facing seats going towards the presidential cabin, as well as pimping his own quarters out in a way that only the kind of deranged Lyndon Johnson could.
He set up a series of couches around a giant leather chair that he called “the throne.” In front of that was a crescent-shaped table that he could raise up and down like a pimped-out ride.
When Nixon came into power in 1969, he gutted the whole thing, and made a series of improvements. He upgraded the flight system, modified the communications gear (probably to spy on everyone on the plane, knowing his MO) and he fixed a slew of other minor problems.
He also got rid of the open floor plan, creating a three room suite for him and his family that contained a lounge, an office, and a bedroom. The other side of the plane had accommodations for media, aides, and whoever else might be on board. The Nixon family preferred the SAM 2600 to its successor, since the set up afforded them more privacy, but it was used only fairly sporadically after being replaced as the primary Air Force One.
Still, it managed to fly many more Presidents (just not always as they were acting Presidents). In 1981, for example, Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter flew aboard SAM 2600 to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s funeral, and it actually got presidential use shortly before being retired when in 1998, Bill Clinton’s Air Force One got stuck in mud while in Champaign, Illinois.
Deciding he didn’t want to spend any more time in Champaign than otherwise necessary, SAM 2600 was sent out from a nearby airfield to pick him up. This would be the final presidential flight for SAM 2600, as it was officially retired from the fleet after returning Clinton to Washington D.C.
VC-137C SAM 27000
In December of 1972, the SAM 2700 officially replaced its sister jet, the SAM 2600. It was more advanced than its predecessor, though it remained in use for only three years longer. Nixon used both the 27000 and 26000 frequently (when with his family he preferred to take the 2600).
After Nixon resigned, he used the 27000 to fly to his home in California. Once Gerald Ford had sworn in, the call sign of the plane changed from Air Force One to SAM 27000 since it was no longer carrying the President.
While Ford pratfell his way through an accidental presidency in the 1970s, airline hijackings and threats of terrorism became a real concern, leading Ford to equip Air Force One with a defense system to detect heat-seeking missiles. When Carter took over as President, he toned down the interior to make it more simplistic, and even had his family carry their own luggage aboard, because Jimmy Carter was, above all else, an incredibly boring President.
Ronald Reagan ended up using the SAM 27000 more than anyone else, flying over 675,000 miles aboard it, and his successor, George H.W. Bush, was the last president to use it as the primary Air Force One, as two replacements were purchased in 1990, which we will talk about shortly.
Still, like the SAM 26000, it still got use after being demoted down the ranks. In 1994, the SAM 27000 flew Richard Nixon’s body home from New York for his funeral (which is the third documented instance of a corpse on an Air Force One we’ve found up to this point in history) and after George W. Bush flew it on August 29, 2001, the plane was decommissioned, and shortly thereafter was given to the Reagan Foundation, where it now currently resides in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Boeing VC-25A: SAM 28000 and 29000
In 1985, the Air Force began looking around for the eventual replacements for the SAM 26000 and 27000, as they had been in service for 23 and 13 years by that point. They were looking for a plane that could go at least 6,000 miles without refueling with at least three engines, and so had a competition between Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, eventually settling on the Boeing 747.
Reagan ordered two identical Boeing 747-200Bs, which were completed in 1986 and first flown in 1987. Nancy Reagan designed the interior, giving it a Southwest theme, but she didn’t get to reap the spoils of her efforts, since issues with wiring for the communications systems meant that they weren’t ready to be entered into service until 1990.
These suckers are the ones that people talk about with 238 miles of wiring (twice that of a standard 747) that can withstand an electromagnetic pulse and the ability to fly 7,800 miles without fueling.
They currently both serve as Air Force One, sort of taking turns when needed or when most convenient. They are also both identical in every way (though they occasionally temporarily redesign interiors, like when they made it look like it was Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One while transporting his body for his funeral on the 28000.
For those curious, every former President who has died since 1990 has been flown to their internment on one of these two jets). Since they’re both identical, we’ll talk about them as if they’re just the same plane, because for all intents and purposes, they are. They are also fancy as shit.
The front of Air Force One is called the “White House” of the plane, which makes sense. The president gets a suite that includes a room with two couches that can be converted into beds (yes, even presidents can’t be too good for a fold out bed in some situations) as well as a bathroom with a shower, double sink, and vanity.
There’s also a private office, or basically an Oval Office in the sky, that the president can address the nation from if needed (that ability was added after, and because of, 9/11). The interior also includes a conference room with a 50-inch plasma screen TV for teleconferencing, and the whole plane has 87 telephones and 19 televisions in total.
We’ve talked about the operating table, and the kitchen that can cook for 100 people, but they also are self-sufficient, and can carry all the food they would ever need, no matter how long they have to stay up in the air (we’re guessing if they had to stay airborne for like, a year, we’d probably be in such a shitty situation that we’d run out of refueling jets before they’d actually run out of food).
These suckers are still high end, but their main issue is that they are expensive as shit to run. In order to operate these planes, it costs the Air Force $210,877 per hour. That is why we are in the process of phasing these planes out, and will soon get our next Air Force One, which we’ll write about preemptively here because why the hell not.
Boeing 747-8: Probably SAM 30000
In 2007 we began looking into upgrading Air Force One to get something a bit newer and more efficient to run. On January 28, 2015, we decided to go with a Boeing 747-8. We don’t know much about it, mainly because they’ve not finished customizing them. The type of plane, however, is the largest version of the 747, standing over six stories high.
It has been randomly pointed out that it has the capability of carrying more than $5 billion in gold bars. So that’s something. It won’t be ready until the next president takes office, so until then we have to just wait for a few years before we get a whole slew of articles about all the crazy bells and whistles it will have. No matter what we know it’ll be a technical marvel, because this is the Air Force One we’re talking about. We kind of have a reputation to maintain.
Hopefully it fares better than its predecessor did in the best film about and named after Air Force One.