Inside Columbine II – The First Ever Air Force One

While Presidents Roosevelt and Truman had used aircraft to transport them worldwide, the first Air Force One did not exist until Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House. Air Force One’s call sign came about in 1953 after an Eastern Airlines passenger flight number 8610 came close to colliding with Air Force flight number 8610. With both call signs having the same number, air traffic controllers in New York became confused with the two planes. To ensure that an incident like that could never happen again, the Air Force decided that any plane the president was flying in would use the call sign Air Force One.

Inside Columbine II – The First Ever Air Force One
Columbine II was the first Air Force One. Photo: TSgt. Ron Woods, USAF via Wikimedia

The plane that would first use the call sign Air Force One was a four-propeller Lockheed C-121 Constellation that had rolled off Lockheed’s assembly line in Burbank, California, in December 1948. There were four aircraft designated for presidential service, including two Constellations, Columbine I and Columbine II. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower named the planes after Colorado’s state flower, the columbine.

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Eisenhower first flew in Columbine II in 1952

Eisenhower first flew to Korea in Columbine II shortly after he was elected president in 1952. The next year, it was converted for VIP transport. The upgrades included a desk with buttons so the president could connect with landlines at airports. Unlike the 747 used as Air Force One today, Eisenhower’s Constellation could not accommodate the president’s staff and reporters. Columbine II had just 16 seats and needed not only two pilots but a flight engineer, navigator, and radio operator to fly it.

Lockheed Constellation Columbine II
Columbine II only had 16 seats. Photo: Tupelo the typo fixer via Wikimedia

A short two years later, after becoming Air Force One, President Eisenhower upgraded his air transport to a Super Constellation named Columbine III, a plane that Lockheed built to compete with the Douglas DC-6 airliner.

Columbine II was only used by Eisenhower

This made Columbine II the only Air Force One that was used by a single president. A year later, Columbine II went into service for Pan American World Airways as the Clipper Fortuna before returning to the Air Force two years later. In 1968 the aircraft retired from military service and was put in storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Eventually sold to a private buyer at auction, Columbine II ended up at Marana Regional Airport (AVW), an aircraft boneyard near Tucson, Arizona.

Columbine II Undergoing Restoration
Columbine II is being restored in Bridgewater, Virginia. Photo: Fadamor via Wikimedia

Now derelict and unwanted, Eisenhower’s private ride sat in the desert until Karl Stolzfus heard about it in 2014. As the owner of a Virginia-based contracting firm called Dynamic Aviation, Stolzfus had the means and the know-how to restore Columbine II to its original glory.

Columbine II is now in Virginia

A team of engineers from Dynamic Aviation and volunteers from the Mid America Flight Museum in Texas started work on the plane in 2015. They discovered that while the airframe was in good shape, the soft components had become brittle due to the desert climate. It took the team a year to make Columbine II airworthy enough for the trip to Virginia. When speaking to Popular Mechanics about the flight to Virginia, the head of Dynamic’s team Brian Miklos said,

“At one point, we had 234 mph across the ground. The ol’ girl was up and getting it done!”

According to Miklos, Dynamic has obtained a similar galley from another Constellation and intends to restore the plane to how it looked while it was in presidential service.

Miklos later added,

“The plan is to restore it to just as it was when President Eisenhower was using it. We have incredible drawings and documentation to support that right down to color codes and manufacturer’s original materials.

Have you had the chance to have a look inside Columbine II? If so, we would love to hear what you thought about the restoration in the comments.