Presidential Aircraft: Standing in History

By Scott Spangler on October 9th, 2017

USAF Museum Bldg 4Following Interstate 70 from one assignment in Indiana to the next in Maryland, a sign announcing the approach of Dayton inspired a deviation. I could spare a few minutes for a quick walk through the fourth building at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, which opened in June 2016. Parking and admission are free, but my quick walk through turned into a nearly 3-hour investment because I didn’t expect an absorbing inside look at history in four presidential aircraft.

Visiting before lunch on Wednesday in the final week of September, I had time to stand in the aisle of each, unsuccessfully trying to comprehend that I was following in the footsteps of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, each identified with a specific airplane powered by four robust piston engines, and SAM (for Special Air Missions) 26000, the VC-137C (a Boeing 707-320B). During its 36-year career, it served eight sitting presidents: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 1, and Clinton.

SAM 26000Of the aircraft in the museum’s Presidential Gallery, SAM 26000 is the most significant to Baby Boomers because they lived through its history. It is the airplane that carried Kennedy to Berlin in mid-1963 and his body home from Dallas six months later. You can think about that while reading the placard in the cabin where the crew removed a partition and seats to make room for his coffin. Pile on top of that the knowledge that this airplane carried Johnson to Vietnam and Nixon to China.

Sacred CowBut the other aircraft also flew into history. The first presidential aircraft, the Douglas VC-54C, called Sacred Cow for the special care it received, carried Roosevelt to Yalta in February 1945 to meet with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin, a conference that many consider to be the start of the Cold War. The Independence, a VC-118 with a flashy eagle painted on its nose, was the first to have a presidential stateroom, and this is where Harry Truman waited for General Douglas MacArthur to show up for their meeting at Wake Island during the Korean War.

Columbine IIIInformative placards offered an unexpected personal connection to history. Mamie Eisenhower christened her husband’s third Lockheed Constellation, the only VC-121E built, as Columbine III on November 24, 1954, my first birthday.  Like its tri-tailed predecessors, which served Eisenhower when we led World War II’s European allies, it was named for the state flower of his wife’s home state, Colorado. Immediately after its christening, the Super Connie, with more powerful engines, greater fuel capacity, and a fuselage stretched 18 feet, carried the Eisenhowers and British Field Marshal Viscount Bernard “Monty” Montgomery to Augusta, Georgia, for a five-day Thanksgiving golfing vacation.  The next year, it delivered Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to Geneva, Switzerland, for the first summit between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union.

Sacred CowFirst-hand observations enriched each airplane’s history on the geek level. Locked in my trivia vault is the knowledge that the VC-54C was created with the fuselage of a C-54A and the wings of a C-54B for increased fuel capacity. The airplane’s interior was sized for the width of a custom wheelchair that carried Roosevelt on and off the airplane in a shielding electric elevator in the plane’s tail.

Columbine IIISpeaking of width, to walk through these four presidential aircraft, visitors must pass through a tubular aluminum portal that recreates the width of the aisles. Plexiglas walls constrict the already narrow aircraft aisles further to protect the seats and other historical artifacts like the presidential playing cards displayed on a staff table in The Independence or the 16mm projector with attached viewing screen in the Columbine III.

Columbine IIIProviding communication as well as secure transportation is another reason presidential aircraft exist, and the aircraft provide an interesting time line of technology. A single operator manned the station in the first three, with the Columbine III’s radio operator also serving the Military Affiliate Radio System, which communicated with ham radio operators as station AF9A. On the bulkhead above him were wire racks for the military hats of the aircraft commander, pilot, navigator, and radio operator. The racks for the rest of the crew were in another compartment. In SAM 26000, two operators sat at a desk backed by a button-studded bulkhead.

Columbine IIIThe cockpits and cabins were equally telling timelines. An astrodome for celestial navigation was above and behind the Sacred Cow’s pilots.  The Independence had a Loran receiver that looked like a hulking old-school oscilloscope. The interiors went from military austere, right down to the wool blankets on the fold-down bunks, to early airline. SAM 26000 offered leather to those assigned seats back by the presidential stateroom.

For the curious, the Sacred Cow had a crew of seven and carried 15 passengers. On The Independence, that grew to nine and 25. Even with its fuselage extension, the Columbine III had a crew of eight and seats for 25 passengers. SAM 26000 had a crew of eight or nine and seats for 40 passengers.

U-4BArranged around and above the four presidential aircraft are others from the VIP fleet, like the twin-engine U-4B Aero Commander that carried Eisenhower, a pilot himself, to his farm in Gettysburg between 1956 and 1960. Afterwards it served the parachute team at the Air Force Academy and then the Nebraska Civil Air Patrol. The museum bought it from a private owner in 1996. Above it the Bell UH-13J Sioux, one of the two that first served Eisenhower, the first president carried by rotary wings. And above SAM 26000 is the Lady Bird Special, a VC-6A (Beech King Air B90) that carried LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, from Bergstrom Air Force Base  outside of Austin, Texas, to their ranch in Stonewall.

Off in a corner are a VC-140B Lockheed JetStar and a C-20B, a Gulfstream GIII, both of which were part of the presidential fleet that carried less presidential government officials.

Hanoi TaxiNoticing the time and reluctantly heading back to the road, I did make one more detour of personal importance. The C-141 that was the Hanoi Taxi started carrying home Vietnam’s prisoners of war in February 1973. They landed at Travis Air Force Base, north of my duty station in the photo lab at NAS Alameda, where I was involved in the documentation of those being examined and debriefed at Naval Hospital Oakland, both of which no longer serve on active duty. All that remains are the reflective memories and erudite recollections of human events whose surviving participants are the machines that made them possible. (If you’re interested in seeing more photos, there’s an album on JetWhine’s Facebook page.) – Scott Spangler, Editor 

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