A History Of Air Force One: What Came Before The Boeing 747?

Air Force One is perhaps the most easily recognized aircraft in the world. But it is not one aircraft, or even the pair of Boeing 747-200Bs used by the current administration. It’s any aircraft carrying the President, and there have been quite a few.

Air Force One
Air Force One as we know it today, but what other planes have been used? Photo: The White House | Pete Souza

What is Air Force One?

Air Force One is not a specific aircraft; rather, it is a designator given to any aircraft in the US Air Force that is carrying the president. To be precise, Air Force One is the call sign used by the aircraft carrying the President, and was adopted after an Eastern Airlines commercial flight with a similar flight number (8610) entered the same airspace as the President’s flight (Air Force 610) back in 1953. To avoid any potential confusion in the future, all flights since then have flown as Air Force One.

Nevertheless, most people will imagine Air Force One to be a particular plane. In contemporary times, it’s a pair of modified Boeing 747-200Bs with tail numbers 28000 and 29000. Designated VC-25A by the Air Force, these iconic blue and white aircraft have been carrying the President and their entourage since 1991, serving the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and, at present, Joe Biden.

Air Force One
Obama onboard the VC-25A. Photo: The White House | Pete Souza

The VC-25As have a range of around 8,000 miles (12,000 km) and are capable of being refueled in flight (although this has never been used in practice). They are equipped with state-of-the-art security and defense systems, a telecommunications suite, accommodation for up to 70 passengers and a crew of 26, as well as various conference and dining room areas and a medical bay.

And it’s not just the President who gets to use Air Force One. Vice Presidents will often fly in the VC-25As, at which time the planes adopt call sign Air Force Two. Also at the disposal of the administration is a modified Boeing 757, known as a C-32, which is more often used by the Vice President, but can accommodate the President too.

Boeing 757 C-32 Air Force Two
The VC-32 is often used by the Vice President. Photo: US Embassy London

These are today’s most recognizable Air Force Ones. But they aren’t the first. Let’s take a look at the previous aircraft which served the leader of the United States.

The first flying President – A Boeing 314 Clipper

The very first President to fly when in office was Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he didn’t have his own private plane to get about in. He took to the skies in a commercial Boeing 314 Clipper in January 1943, when he needed to get to the Casablanca Conference in Morocco. The aircraft was the Dixie Clipper, a Pan Am crewed flying boat.

Boeing 314 Clipper
The first presidential flight was aboard a commercial Boeing 314. Photo: Library of Congress

The United States Army Air Forces were not happy with having to rely on commercial airlines to transport the commander-in-chief and ordered that a special military aircraft be converted to carry the President. The first converted was a C-87A aircraft, which was modified in 1943 for Presidential use, and named the Guess Where II.

If it had been accepted, it would have been the first Presidential transport aircraft, but it wasn’t. Having reviewed the somewhat dubious safety record of the C-87A, the Secret Service refused to allow the President to fly on it. It did go to work transporting various other people under the Roosevelt administration, but Franklin never set foot on the plane.

The Sacred Cow

Having been unimpressed with the C-87A, the Secret Service instead set about reconfiguring a Douglas C-54 Skymaster to carry the President. Nicknamed the Sacred Cow and designated a VC-54C, the aircraft had onboard a sleeping compartment, a radiotelephone and even an elevator to lift Roosevelt onboard in his wheelchair.

Air Force One
The Sacred Cow was the first official Presidential transport. Photo: USAF

Sadly, President Roosevelt made use of the Sacred Cow only once, on a trip to the Yalta Conference in 1945, before he passed away.

Harry Truman rode the VC-54C when he took office, and notably signed the National Security Act of 1947 aboard the plane – the legislation to create the US Air Force. The aircraft is preserved at the US Air Force Museum in Ohio.

Truman’s Independence

Harry Truman didn’t use the Sacred Cow for long, taking the initiative to convert an aircraft for his own needs. Using a DC-6 as the base, the administration adopted what was to become the VC-118 in 1947. In recognition of his hometown, Truman named the plane Independence.

Air Force One
Truman named the plane ‘Independence’ after his hometown. Photo: USAF

This aircraft had a stateroom for the President in the aft of the cabin, as well as a main cabin that could seat 24 or convert into 12 sleeper berths. It had some technological improvements too, such as reversible pitch propellers, autopilot, a weather radar, and larger fuel tanks. It had a rather eye-catching livery, with a stylized eagle design and feathers on the tail.

The VC-118 served the administration until 1953, when it was moved on to other duties. It is now preserved at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio, alongside the Sacred Cow.

Eisenhower and the Columbines

As Eisenhower took up the position of commander-in-chief, he brought with him a new Presidential transport. The customized Lockheed C-121 Constellation was modified and designated the VC-121E, and was christened ‘Columbine II’ by Eisenhower. The name was reportedly inspired by the official flower of Colorado, and had to be number II because Columbine I was his personal army transport prior to taking office.

Entering into service in 1953, it was this aircraft that allegedly gave birth to the Air Force One callsign. But despite this significant legacy, Columbine II was only in service for a year before Eisenhower upgraded.

Columbine III
Columbine II was soon upgraded to Columbine III. Photo: USAF

In 1954, Eisenhower replaced the Constellation with a Super Constellation – a longer, faster and more comfortable aircraft. The President christened this aircraft, you guessed it, Columbine III. She was to be the last piston-engine aircraft used as Presidential transport.

Eisenhower was the first President to move Air Force One into the jet age. In 1959, he flew onboard a Boeing 707 Stratoliner, designated the VC-137A, which was part of the administration’s air fleet. This Air Force One had a telecommunications section, accommodation for up to 40 passengers, a conference area and a state room.

Air Force One
‘Queenie’ sported an unusual orange livery. Photo: PQGW via Flickr

Although Eisenhower flew on the 707 from time to time, Columbine III remained the primary Presidential transport until 1962. The 707 replaced it in that year, and remained in the fleet until 1996. Surprisingly, Eisenhower christened this aircraft not Columbine IV, but ‘Queenie.’

The first bespoke Presidential jet – Boeing 707

President John F. Kennedy became the first President to fly in an aircraft that had been specifically built as a presidential transport. His Air Force One was a modified Boeing 707 with tail number 26000. Designated the VC-137C, it entered service in 1962 and was the first plane to sport the iconic livery so instantly recognizable as Air Force One today.

Air Force One
SAM 26000 was the first to sport the Loewy livery. Photo: USAF

Industrial designer Raymond Loewy created the design, as well as the logo that is still seen today on both sides of the Presidential jets. It became universally recognized as a symbol of America’s power and prestige. Sadly, it also carried the body of Kennedy from Dallas to Washington after his assassination.

Lyndon B Johnson was sworn in onboard this plane. It continued to be the primary Air Force One for many other administrations, including Nixon, Ford, Carter, Regan, and George H. W. Bush. A sister aircraft was inducted in 1972, with tail number 27000. It wasn’t until 1990 that both planes were replaced by the current Boeing 747s.