A Brief History
On October 11, 1910, with aviation still in its infancy, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt took a flight in a Wright Brothers airplane piloted by Archibald Hoxsey, a former auto mechanic from Illinois. The flight, which took place near St. Louis, Missouri, was the first time an American President had ever flown in an airplane, starting a long tradition of US Presidents flying to vacations, international meetings, campaign events, and whatever other reason the Executive needs to travel.
Oddly enough, Roosevelt’s flight was not the first ever by a national head of state, as the Tsar of Bulgaria, Ferdinand I, had flown in an airplane in July of 1910. In spite of the airplane being an American invention, not only was our leader not the first to take a flight, it was the British King who was the first to have an actual airplane dedicated to him and the royal family for air travel in 1928, and in fact, it was 2 airplanes reserved for that purpose. The British royal aircraft were 2 Westland Wapitis, single engine bi-planes that could only carry 2 passengers in open cockpits and traveled at a blistering speed of 110 mph (we are being sarcastic…). The range of the Wapiti was a mere 360 miles. In 1936, the British formed the first official Air Force unit designated for flying the head of state, called appropriately, The King’s Flight.
After the Teddy Roosevelt flight in 1910, no American president flew in an airplane while in office until Franklin D. Roosevelt more than 2 decades later. A Douglas Dolphin amphibious airplane became the first airplane dedicated for use by the US president. Although handy with its ability to take off and land in water, the Dolphin only cruised at 105 mph, though its range was a credible 692 mile. The Dolphin carried only 4 passengers, but did have sleeping quarters for the president. It was in use until 1939, and it is unknown if FDR actually ever even flew in the plane. Designated as an RD-2, the Dolphin was operated by the US Navy. Still, flights by the second Roosevelt were rare before World War II. During World War II, FDR flew to Casablanca in 1943 for a conference with Allied leaders, using a Boeing 314 flying boat named The Dixie Clipper. (People named individual planes and trains back then.) Flying boats offered the best long range air service in that era, and the 5500 mile flight to Casablanca was made with 2 stops along the way for fuel and maintenance. Roosevelt’s next executive aircraft was a modified Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber, configured as a C-87 Liberator Express, which offered not as long range, but higher performance than the flying boat. This airplane was given the catchy name, Guess Where II. (Very punny…) Despite the efforts of the US Army Air Forces to provide a capable military plane for the president, the Secret Service refused to allow Roosevelt to fly on the plane because of the Liberator’s reputation as having dangerous flying quirks. Oddly enough, the First Lady was allowed to fly in the Guess Where II…
FDR was apparently not done upping the executive airplane ante, so his next dedicated presidential transport was a modified Douglas C-54 Skymaster, designated as a VC-54C and named Sacred Cow. Sacred Cow was tailor made for FDR, including a lift to get him in and out of the airplane while still seated in his wheelchair. Alas, the President by this time was in failing health and only made one trip in Sacred Cow, to and from the Yalta Conference in 1945. Sacred Cow was the first of what we would recognize as the presidential plane, geared up with sleeping quarters and radio telephone equipment and whatever facilities a president would need on a flight.
In 1947, with the creation of the US Air Force, a new plane was provided for President Truman, this time a Douglas C-118 Liftmaster, named Independence by Truman. The C-118 was developed from the Douglas DC-6 4 engine airliner that made its debut in 1947. The C-118 could cruise over 300 mph for 4000 miles, a tremendous leap forward in performance. The airliner version could carry up to 89 passengers, though the presidential version was designed to carry 24 passengers with sleeping facilities for 12 people.
Truman left office in 1953 and was succeeded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was treated to the last of the large propeller driven executive airplanes, variations of the Lockheed Constellation designated C-121, a big triple tailed monster of a plane that could cruise at 340 mph for over 5000 miles. Ike allowed his wife to name both of these Constellations, which she dubbed Columbine II and Columbine III, the word “columbine” being that of the state flower of her home state of Colorado. It was Columbine III that was the first to be called by the call sign “Air Force One.” The use of the call sign, Air Force One, was made official in 1962, and is NOT the name of the airplane. Any transport hauling the president is called Air Force One.
Eisenhower also ushered in the jet age to presidential transportation, with the adoption of the Boeing 707 jet liner as the executive transport in 1959. Not 1, but 3 of the planes, designated as VC-137’s, were acquired for modification as use as Air Force One. Using the big jetliners as Air Force One was another game changer, with top speed of 627 mph far eclipsing any planes that had gone before. Max range of over 7000 miles was also unprecedented. The last 2 of the VC-137’s served in the Air Force One role all the way until 2001, used by then President George W. Bush. Already by 1985 the Air Force and executive branch were exploring the use of a larger, wide-body jetliner for the president, eventually deciding on the big brother of the VC-137, a version of the Boeing 747 designated VC-25A. The first of 2 VC-25A’s were delivered in 1990, and the Air Force has stuck with the 747 as the basis for the follow on model, the VC-25B, though political wrangling has delayed replacement.
The evolution of helicopters as safe and reliable transport gave American presidents another form of highly convenient transportation when the use of major airports is not feasible or convenient. The US Marine Corps usually provides the helicopter service for the president, with a special unit designated HMX-1 Nighthawks using large, powerful helicopters specially designed for executive use. Given the call sign “Marine One” when the president is aboard, the Marines use either a modified VH-53 or a VH-60N, both built by Sikorsky, versions of their Sea King and Blackhawk lines of military helicopters. The presidential choppers are referred to as “White tops” because of their paint jobs with (wait for it!) white paint on top!
Other aircraft have served as presidential transport, smaller planes used for shorter flights, such as the Beechcraft VC-6A used by President Lyndon Johnson and a Gulfstream C20A used by President Clinton. President George W. Bush famously (or infamously) flew to the US aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln aboard a Lockheed S-3A anti-submarine jet in 2003 (the trip made in order to deliver the much maligned “Mission Accomplished” speech). Civilian airliners may be used for presidential transport, though such an occasion would be a rarity, with United Airlines having the distinction of being the only airlines (so far) to have flown a president. (When a civilian plane is transporting the president, the call sign is “Executive One.”) Presidents may also fly aboard an Air Force C-32, the military version of the Boeing 757 jetliner, for shorter flights or flights to airports too small for the giant 747/VC-25 transport.
So far, no president has ever traveled into outer space, although former Senator John Glenn had been an astronaut prior to his life in politics and he had indeed run for his party’s nomination as candidate for president. Had he been nominated and elected; he would have been the first space traveler to serve as president! Of course, some folks might want to send a president into outer space at times…
Question for students (and subscribers): If you were president, what changes would you make to the presidential aircraft? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
L’Heureux, Ray, and Lee Kelley. Inside Marine One: Four U.S. Presidents, One Proud Marine, and the World’s Most Amazing Helicopter. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.
Veronico, Nicholas. Air Force One: The Aircraft of the Modern U.S. Presidency. Motorbooks, 2018.
Walsh, Kenneth. Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes. Hachette Books, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Theodore Roosevelt and Archibald Hoxsey in 1910, Kinloch Field in St. Louis, Missouri, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.