The Flying White House: The History And Future Of Air Force One

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We have all seen the blue and white modified 747s that carry the US President. These are known as Air Force One when the President is onboard (Air Force One is the callsign of any aircraft carrying the President). More than just a transport aircraft, the current aircraft are fully equipped offices and residences for the President, with working space for key staff and even an onboard press contingent.

Air-force-one-retirement-getty
The current Boeing 747 VC-25 aircraft takes the callsign Air Force One when the President is onboard. Photo: Getty Images

This article looks back at the previous aircraft used for Presidential transport, the introduction of the Air Force One callsign and concept, and explores the current 747s and their planned replacement in 2024.

Early Presidential aircraft

The iconic blue and white 747s are what we associate with the callsign Air Force One. These were only introduced in 1990, though, and of course, Presidents have been flying long before that.

The first President to take the air was Theodore Roosevelt, although he had left office by the time. In October 1910, he flew at a county fair at Kinloch Field in Missouri, as a passenger in a Wright Flyer aircraft. This was only seven years after the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight in a predecessor Wright Flyer.

Wright Flyer 1910
Roosevelt took to the air in the Wright Flyer in 1910. Photo: Unknown via Wikimedia

Before the Second World War, Presidential air travel was rare. Flights, when they did happen, were with commercial aircraft. Franklin Roosevelt became the first serving President to fly (according to the National Museum of the US Air Force). He flew to Morocco in 1943 on a Pan American World Airways crewed Boeing 314.

Introducing dedicated Presidential transport

The idea of a dedicated Presidential aircraft, operated by the US military, came about in 1943. The first proposed aircraft was a modified C-87 Liberator Express aircraft, called the ‘Guess Where II.’ This operated until 1945 and carried several VIP passengers, including the First Lady, but was not deemed safe enough for Presidential transport.

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The first aircraft that was approved was a modified Douglas C-54 Skymaster, nicknamed the ‘Sacred Cow.’ It was officially called ‘The Flying White Housebut earned its nickname due to the security surrounding it. President Franklin Roosevelt used this once, in 1945, to attend the Yalta Conference in the Soviet Union, for discussions regarding the postwar situation in Europe.

C-54 Skymaster
The C-54 Skymaster that carried Presidents Roosevelt and Truman flew until 1961 and was the first dedicated Presidential transport. Photo: Unknown via Wikimedia

The ‘Sacred Cow’ was replaced in 1947 with a C-118 Liftmaster (a military-modified Douglas DC-6 aircraft). This aircraft, known as ‘Independence,’ was fitted out with a stateroom and seats for up to 24 passengers.

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Independence aircraft
The Independence DC-6 aircraft. Photo: U.S. Department of State via Wikimedia

Introducing the callsign in 1953

In the years after the Second World War, aviation expanded significantly. Presidential travel was no exception. President Eisenhower introduced several large propeller aircraft for dedicated Presidential travel, and towards the end of his second term in office, he introduced the first jet, a Boeing 707.

The first of these was a Lockheed Constellation aircraft, named ‘Columbine II’ after the First Lady’s home state national flower. Soon after its introduction in January 1953, it became the first aircraft to take the callsign ‘Air Force One.’ 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 after just two years with Columbine III, a Lockheed Super Constellation, and went on to fly with Pan American World Airways. It was stored in 1964 but later restored for Eisenhower’s 100th birthday celebrations in 1989. It was sold to a private company in 2016, which continues restoration work, aiming to restore it to its original appearance.

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The first Air Force One jets – Boeing 707s

In 1959, Presidential air travel entered the jet age. It is no surprise that US manufacturer Boeing and the 707 were chosen. It was not the first commercial jet aircraft to enter service (this accolade goes to the de Havilland Comet), but it was the first highly successful one.

President Eisenhower oversaw the introduction of the first jet. This was a Boeing C-137 Stratoliner derived from the Boeing 707 and modified as VC-137 for presidential service. This first aircraft, Special Air Mission (SAM) 970, carried Eisenhower on several overseas trips, including a final tour covering 35,000 kilometers around Asia in December 1959.

SAM 970 1974
Kissinger lands at Heathrow in 1974 onboard SAM 970 (SAM 970 would be the callsign whenever it was not carrying the President). Photo: Getty Images

The next 707s – SAM 26000

It was not long before SAM 970 was replaced by an upgraded Boeing 707. SAM 26000, a VC-137C / Boeing 707-353B, entered service in October 1962, under President Kennedy. It served as the main transport for three Presidents – Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

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SAM 26000
SAM 26000. Photo: U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia

It introduced the blue and white color schemes still so recognizable today. French-American designed Raymond Loewy designed this. He is also credited with the TWA logo, as well as work on BP, Shell, Greyhound, and plenty of US railroad designs.

The interior of SAM 26000
The interior of SAM 26000. Photo: Getty Images

Some of the main events during SAM 26000’s service include:

  • The first Presidential flight in November 1962. It took Kennedy to New York to attend the funeral of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
  • Following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in onboard the aircraft before flying back to Washington with Kennedy’s casket.
  • It flew Johnson on two extensive tours of Asia and two trips to Vietnam. He was the highest user of the aircraft.
  • It underwent a complete refit after Nixon took office in 1969, adding a new suite for his family use (which remains today in the 747s today). Before this, the interior was much more open plan.
President Johnson sworn in
President Johnson was sworn in onboard SAM 26000. Photo: Cecil William Stoughton via Wikimedia
President Johnson onboard Air Force One in 1966
President Johnson onboard Air Force One in 1966. Photo: Getty Images

Upgrading in 1972 – SAM 27000

SAM 26000 was replaced by SAM 27000 in 1972. It served seven presidents up to its replacement in 2001 – Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W Bush.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan Air Force One 1988
Ronald and Nancy Reagan on Air Force One / SAM 27000 in Moscow in 1988. Photo: White House Photographic Collection via Wikimedia

Some of its main highlights include:

  • The aircraft was the first to be fitted with missile defense systems amidst increased terrorism threats in the 1970s.
  • Ronald Reagan was the heaviest user. This includes three trips to Asia, six to Europe and one to Russia to meet Gorbachev.
  • George H W Bush was the last President to use it as the primary Air Force One. However, it continued in service as a backup aircraft and saw service with the next two Presidents as well.
Ronald Reagan onboard Air Force One
Ronald Reagan onboard. Photo: White House Photographic Collection via Wikimedia

All three 707s that served as Air Force One 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.
SAM 27000 at the Reagan Library
SAM 27000 at the Reagan Library. Photo: Rlwagner via Wikimedia

The Boeing 747 VC-25A Air Force Ones

Two 747s replaced the 707s in 1990. Officially named SAM 28000 and SAM 29000, these are modified 747-200 aircraft, with Boeing designator VC-25A.

Delivering the 747s

The two identical 747s were ordered as replacements during President Reagan’s term. The only other proposal came from McDonnell Douglas with a modified DC-10 aircraft. These were completed in 1986, at the cost of $325 million each, and first flew in May 1987. Delays with the interior electronics meant they did not enter service until 1990 after Reagan had passed the office to George H Bush.

They kept the same livery designed by Raymond Loewy for the previous 707s. First Lady Nancy Reagan designed the interiors, apparently to recall her native US Southwest home.

Air Force One
Two identical VC-25A modified 747-200s serve as Air Force One. Photo: Getty Images

Plenty of special features

The aircraft features plenty of impressive features. It has defense countermeasures to disrupt heat-seeking missiles, technology to jam radar, and extensive communications facilities. Much of these features, of course, remain secret.

Unlike other 747s, it also adds the ability to refuel inflight. This is useful not just for longer flights but also to keep it airborne in the event of emergencies on the ground.

Air Force One
The VC-25A adds refueling capability – that is what the small bump on the nose is for. Photo: Getty Images

Inside Air Force One

The VC-25A offers 4,000 square feet of space. It is a true White House in the sky, with sleeping and working space for the Presidential family, a conference room, working and meeting areas for staff, and a press section.

Simple Flying took a detailed look through the aircraft in a previous article.

The upper deck is for crew. Behind the cockpit are a crew lounge and a full communication center. This handles communication on the aircraft and with the ground as well as many of the aircraft defense systems.

The main deck is for the President, staff, guests, and press. The protocol is that passengers can move aft of their seat location, but not forward. And there is plenty of Secret Service security throughout the deck to enforce this.

president trump air force one getty images
The President’s ‘Oval Office’ in the sky. Photo: Getty Images

In the nose of the aircraft is a private suite for the President and his family. This has been a feature since Nixon introduced it on the 747. Behind this suite is the Presidents office, with a large chair, desk, and sofas for guests. After the events of September 11th, the technology to address the nation from the office was added (on that day, the aircraft had to land to enable the President to give an address).

Air Force One
There is a main conference room and several other meeting spaces. Photo: Getty Images

Next comes a large medical suite. Air Force One always flies with a doctor and nurse onboard. Along the corridor from here are many offices – including a room for senior staffers, a conference room with eight large chairs. Beyond this are several separated cabins – for office staff, invited guests, and (at the rear) press that travel with the President.

Air Force One
Press travel with the President at the rear of the main deck. Photo: Getty Images

30 years of service

Of course, over the past 30 years, the two VC-25A aircraft have flown plenty of domestic and international missions.

  • On September 11st 2001, Air Force One took off with the President shortly after it was clear what was happening. It remained airborne whilst all other air traffic was grounded, landing to refuel and for the President to address the nation before taking off again. It was later explained that there was fear of attack if it landed again at Washington.
  • Presidents have invited other leaders to travel with them. This includes Nixon taking the Soviet premier Brezhnev with him in 1973. The British Queen and Prime Minister David Cameron has also both been guests within the US.
  • The aircraft also traditionally transport the caskets of former Presidents for state funerals. They are placed in the guest area at the rear of the aircraft, a tradition that began when Kennedy’s body was flown back after the assassination.
Air Force One Daytona
Air Force One has transported presidents to countless events. It is seen here leaving a racing event at Daytona. Photo: Getty Images

Replacing the current 747s with the VC-25B

Like many other 747s around the world, the two VC-25A aircraft will soon be retired. The US Air Force requested proposals for three replacement aircraft in 2009. There was initial interest from Airbus to offer the A380, but it pulled out as it believed it would not make financial sense to build the aircraft in the US.

This left just Boeing. And after considering the 787 as an option, the 747-8 was chosen.  In 2016, the Air Force confirmed the contract for Boeing, reduced to two aircraft, and with plenty of requests to look at cost reduction options.

Boeing 747-8 Air Force One
A rendering of the new Boeing 747-8 Air Force One. Photo: Boeing

Modifying two former Transaero aircraft

As part of the effort to reduce costs, it was announced in 2017 that two 747-8I aircraft originally intended for the Russian airlines Transaero would be purchased and modified.

Transaero originally ordered these two aircraft in 2011, but it ceased operations in 2015 before taking delivery of them. They have been stored at the  Southern California Logistics Airport in the Mojave desert since then.

Transaero 747
Transaero operated the 747 and ordered the new 747-8. Photo: Sergey Korovkin 84 via Wikimedia

Of course, refitting these will be faster and less costly than building new aircraft, but there is still a lot to do. In 2018, a contract for $3.9 billion to modify these into VC-25B variants was announced. The aircraft were flown to Boeing in Texas in spring 2019 and stripped down. Modification work began in February 2020, with the aircraft expected to be delivered in 2024.

According to the US Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, the first modifications to be made include:

“The first phase of aircraft modification involves cutting out large skin and structure areas in both the forward and aft lower lobes of the aircraft and then installing two newly manufactured superpanels. The superpanels contain structural upgrades and cutouts for the VC-25B lower lobe doors, including internal airstairs for mission requirements.” 

Plenty more will follow, including communications and defense systems, medical and catering facilities, and a full interior refit. We have yet to see what the aircraft will look like inside, but some reports suggest that President Trump has called for a more lavish interior – and larger beds.

A new livery?

Another major change with the VC-25B aircraft could be the livery. Even though Trump may never fly on the new aircraft, he has been heavily involved in the order and design. In June 2019, he indicated he wanted a change to a new red, white and blue livery. This would be the first change since Loewy’s design was released in 1962.

Trump Air Force One New Livery
Trump shows a model of the new aircraft in the Oval Office. Photo: Getty Images

Trump showed this new design in a Tweet from ABC News in 2019:

People have been quick to note how similar this looks to British Airways’ former Landor livery. This red, white, and blue scheme was repainted on a 747 as part of celebrations in 2019.

747 British Airways Landor
British Airways’ former Landor livery is very similar. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia Commons 

The future for the VC-25A aircraft

Once these new 747-8I aircraft arrive (hopefully in 2024), what will happen to the current 747s? It is doubtful that they will end up stored in the desert, like many commercial 747s currently being retired. Many previous Air Force Ones have been preserved or displayed, and while nothing is confirmed yet, it is likely the 747s will see the same future.

The George and Barbara Bush Foundation has expressed interest in taking one after retirement, potentially displaying it in his library and museum in Texas.

Other ‘Air Force Ones’

The US Presidents’ transport is by far the most recognizable, but there are, of course, plenty of other countries that have something in place for their leaders. Here are a few of the ones Simple Flying has looked at before:

Russia uses an Ilyushin-96 (it has eight of them in the government’s aircraft fleet). Four of them are equipped for head of state transport. They are lavishly equipped, with rugs, tapestries, and even a decent-sized gym.

India took delivery of a new Boeing 777 in October 2020, with one more due soon. These are the first dedicated planes for use by the government and Prime Minister, who previously flew with Air India. Like the US Air Force One, they are equipped with extensive communication, defense, and radar jamming technology.

Air India One
India’s first 777 was delivered in 2020. Photo: Vikramdabas via Wikimedia

Germany replaced its aging Airbus A340 government aircraft with A350 in 2020, the first of which was delivered in May. This will feature a new cabin, with extensive office and meeting space, but this is yet to be revealed.

The UK Royal Air Force operates an Airbus A330 for use by the government and Prime Minister. It also serves as an air to air refueling aircraft. It is significantly less extravagant than Air Force One – it was fitted out with business class style seating by Prime Minister David Cameron, but has no suites or extensive office space!

Boris Force One
The UK’s ‘Air Force One’ was controversially repainted in 2020. Photo: Getty Images

And finally, Mexico is an interesting case. The government operates a luxurious Boeing 787 for Presidential travel. But the current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador sees this as lavish and wasteful, apparently preferring to travel commercially. Since 2019, he has been trying to sell it.

Would you like to share any facts or comments about US Presidential transport or any of the Air Force One aircraft? Let us know in the comments.

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