The Story Of Air Force One – The Flying White House

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The 747s that carry the US President (and known as Air Force One when they do) are some of the most recognizable aircraft around. Presidential transportation, and the Air Force One callsign, have a long and colorful history. Presidents have been flying overseas since the 1940s, with continual improvements to aircraft over the decades. And these will improve again soon, with new 747-8 aircraft due in 2024.

Air Force One
Air Force One has a long history leading to the 747s we associate with it today. Photo: Getty Images

The start of Presidential travel

Franklin Roosevelt was the first US President to fly whilst in office. He flew on a Pan American Airways-crewed Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat to attend the Casablanca conference in 1943. President Theodore Roosevelt had become the first President ever to fly more than 30 years before that, when he took to the air in a Wright Flyer aircraft. However, this was a leisure flight during a county fair at Kinloch Field, and he had left office by that time.

The idea of a dedicated presidential aircraft soon followed, with a modified C-87 Liberator Express aircraft, named ‘Guess Where II,’ operating from 1943 to 1945. It was not deemed safe enough for the President himself, however.

The first aircraft to be approved was a modified Douglas C-54 Skymaster, in 1945. This was officially named ‘The Flying Whitehouse’ but soon earned a more popular nickname of ‘Sacred Cow’ due to its security. It carried Presidents Roosevelt and Truman and remained in service until 1961.

Sacred Cow
‘Sacred Cow’ was the first dedicated presidential aircraft. Photo: Unknown via Wikimedia

It was joined in 1947 by a C-118 Liftmaster (a military-modified Douglas DC-6 aircraft), known as ‘Independence.’ This introduced some of the fittings that presidential aircraft have become known for, with a separate stateroom onboard as well as seating for 24 passengers.

The first ‘Air Force One’

The real story of Air Force One starts a bit later. Dedicated aircraft were in use from 1945, but a dedicated callsign was not used until 1953.

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President Eisenhower introduced several large propeller aircraft. The first of these was a Lockheed Constellation aircraft, named ‘Columbine II.’ In January 1953, the use of the callsign ‘Air Force One’ was introduced for this aircraft. This happened following an incident where ‘Air Force 8610’ carrying the President was confused with commercial flight ‘Eastern Air Lines 8610.’

Columbine II
Columbine II, seen here in 1990. Photo: TSgt. Ron Woods, USAF via Wikimedia

Columbine II was replaced by Columbine III, a Lockheed Super Constellation aircraft, in 1953. Columbine II still retains a special place in US aviation history. It was restored and flew again as part of President Eisenhower’s 100th birthday celebrations in 1989.

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Air Force One jets – the 707s

Air Force One entered the jet age in 1959 and started a relationship with Boeing that continues today. Again, it was President Eisenhower who approved and oversaw the introduction of the first jet, a modified Boeing 707 (this was a C-137 Stratoliner, modified as VC-137).

SAM 26000
Modified 707s were in service as presidential transport from 1959 to 2001. Photo: U.S. Air Force photo via Wikimedia

Over the next 30 years, three 707s were introduced. These carried the designation of Special Air Mission (SAM) and were the callsigns used when not serving as Air Force One. This continues with the 747s today.

  • SAM 970 was the first 707, introduced in 1959. It was the main aircraft for President Eisenhower and also carried Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.
  • SAM 2600, a modified Boeing 707-353B, was the next upgrade, introduced in October 1962, under President Kennedy. It served as the main transport for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. It introduced a private suite area for the President and his family (after a refit under Nixon). This, of course, remains a feature today.
Lyndon Johnson SAM2600
Lyndon Johnson was sworn in onboard SAM2600 following the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. Photo: Cecil William Stoughton via Wikimedia
  • SAM 27000 was the final 707, introduced in 1972. It remained in service until 2001 (long after introducing the 747s) and served seven presidents – Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W Bush. It was the first ‘Air Force One’ to be fitted with missile defense systems.
President Johnson onboard Air Force One in 1966.
President Johnson onboard Air Force One in 1966. Photo: Getty Images

Preserving the jets

All three 707s have been preserved. SAM 970 is on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. SAM 26000 is on display at the US Air Force museum in Ohio. And SAM 27000 is displayed at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California.

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SAM 27000
SAM 27000 at the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. Photo: Rlwagner via Wikimedia

This is a tradition that is likely to be maintained with at least one of the current 747s. The George and Barbara Bush Foundation has expressed interest in taking one after retirement, potentially displaying it in his library and museum in Texas.

The Air Force One livery

The 707s introduced another aspect of Air Force One – its distinctive livery. This iconic blue, white, and gold color scheme was introduced for the second 707, under President Kennedy. French-American designer Raymond Loewy designed it. He is credited with several other classic designs, including TWA’s logo, the Greyhound logo, and work with several railroads.

SAM 27000
The classic livery has been used on the 707s and 747s. Photo: White House Photographic Collection via Wikimedia

This livery was retained for the VC-25A aircraft, but there is some controversy over what will be used for the upcoming replacements. President Trump proposed a new livery, with a patriotic red, white and blue color scheme. Demonstrating the keen interest in this, Biden’s new administration was asked about it on the day the new President was sworn in, with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki replying:

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“I can confirm for you here the president has not spent a moment thinking about the color scheme of Air Force One.”

Trump new Air Force One
Trump displays a new livery for Air Force One. Photo: Getty Images

Today’s modified 747-200s – VC-25A

The 707s were replaced by a pair of 747s in 1990. These are officially named SAM 28000 and SAM 29000 and are heavily modified 747-200 aircraft, with Boeing designator VC-25A.

President Reagan ordered the new aircraft, but (mainly due to delays with interior wiring) they were not delivered until President Bush was in office.

Inside the 747s

Air Force One interiors and facilities have become more advanced and lavish over time. Larger propeller aircraft allowed staterooms and separated seating, and the 707s took this further with office space and later a private residence. But the extra space offered by the 747 has allowed much more.

Simple Flying took a fascinating look through the VC-25A in detail. First Lady Nancy Reagan designed the interiors, apparently to recall her native US Southwest home.

Trump Air Force One
The VC-25A aircraft have a large ‘Oval Office’ for the President. Photo: Getty Images

The upper deck is for crew and houses communications and defense systems. The President’s apartment and office are at the front of the main deck, with a medical suite, conference room, and several offices behind that. Separate cabins for invited guests and the media follow, with the general protocol being that passengers can move aft of their seat location, but not forward.

Trump Air Force One
There is a press section at the rear. Photo: Getty Images

Coming soon – new 747-8 aircraft

The 747-200s have given over 30 years of service, but like many other 747s worldwide, their time is coming to an end. In 2016, the US Air Force confirmed a contract with Boeing for two 747-8I aircraft. These will carry the designator VC-25B and are due to enter service by 2024.

Interestingly, there had been initial interest in the Airbus A380. In the end, Airbus pulled out, as it believed it would not make financial sense to move production to the US for just two aircraft. The Boeing 787 was considered as well.

Starting the refit

The project saw several cost savings under President Trump. As part of this, it was announced in 2017 that two 747-8I aircraft originally intended for Russian airline Transaero would be purchased. Transaero ordered these in 2011 but ceased operations before taking delivery. The amount paid for the aircraft (with registrations N895BA and N894BA) was not revealed.

Transaero 747
Transaero operated the 747-400 and was planning to take on the 747-8I. Photo: Sergey Korovkin 84 via Wikimedia

The aircraft were transferred from storage at the Southern California Logistics Airports in Victorville to Boeing’s facility in San Antonio, Texas. According to FlightAware.com, they last flew in March and April 2019. Boeing has begun a $3.9 billion refit program to convert the aircraft for presidential service.

There is a lot more to do than just an interior refit (which we know little about so far). It will have extensive communications and defense systems added. The fuselage will be hardened, and retractable stairs will be added. Operationally, it will be adapted to allow steeper take-off and landing, and a second APU will be fitted. It will not have the ability to refuel in the air, though, as the current VC-25 A aircraft can.

Boeing Air Force One
Boeing rendering of the future Air Force One (in the same livery as current VC-25As). Photo: Boeing

Coming later – a supersonic Air Force One?

Looking further ahead, we may see supersonic travel for future Presidents. There has been a lot of interest in this commercially in recent years, with some potential for aircraft ready by 2030. The US Air Force has not missed out on this and has partnered with a few companies to investigate the potential.

Boom Supersonic is the company coming out furthest ahead with a mid-size commercial supersonic jet. And it has partnered with the US Air Force to look at possibilities for VIP and presidential travel.

There is also a partnership between the US Air force and Exosonic looking at executive travel. Exosonic is working on reducing the sonic boom and noise pollution impact of supersonic travel. This is critical if supersonic travel overland is to become a reality (this was a major limitation of Concorde, for example). Simple Flying took an exclusive look at developments with Exosonic recently.

Exosonic Presidential Jet
A potential Exosonic Air Force One would cruise at Mach 1.8, hopefully with lowered sonic boom impact. Photo: Exosonic

Even further ahead, there is also work ongoing with Hermeus looking at the potential of reaching Mach 5.

Other ‘Air Force Ones’

Of course, the US is not the only country to operate presidential and government aircraft. Simple Flying has looked at many of these before. Some of the most interesting include:

India recently took delivery of two modified 777-300ER aircraft as its first dedicated ‘Air India One‘ aircraft. The first was used for presidential service in March 2021. Previously it used 747 aircraft in service with Air India. Some photos of the interior were leaked in 2020, but we are yet to see inside officially.

Germany has likewise recently taken on new aircraft. A new A350 was delivered in May 2020 to replace its long-serving A340. This will feature a new cabin, with extensive office and meeting space, but this is yet to be revealed.

The Russian government operates four presidential-equipped Ilyushin-96 aircraft. They are lavishly furnished, with rugs, tapestries, and even a decent-sized gym.

The UK has a much less lavish aircraft – an A330 that doubles for military use as an air to air refueling aircraft. It was fitted out with business class style seating by Prime Minister David Cameron, and controversially repainted by Boris Johnson. However, it lacks the conference rooms, accommodation, and fittings of other countries.

RAF VOyager
‘Boris Force One’ was recently repainted in UK colors. Photo: Getty Images

Air Force One has a long and interesting history. And the aircraft used have become some of the most expensive and best equipped. Feel free to discuss these aircraft and their modifications in the comments, along with your thoughts on the next and future generations.

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