Air Force One Over the Years
Slide Show

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Air Force One

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

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In 2021 or thereabouts, the president of the United States will board a spanking new Air Force One that will boast new standards of technological sophistication and comfort for the traveling commander in chief. The president's aircraft will be based on the iconic Boeing 747. It also may be one of the last of those made, as the planemaker has said it may phase out production by 2017 due to declining demand.

Seven separate airplanes have carried presidents, each with a unique story. Few Americans of a certain age can forget the televised images of the casket containing the body of President John Kennedy being loaded on to Air Force One on the tarmac of Dallas’ Love Field.

Air Force One has a storied history that goes back more than 100 years. Take a look.

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Air Force One Over the Years | Slide 2 of 10

The First Flying President

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

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It shouldn’t be any surprise that the first president to fly was adventurer, outdoorsman and Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt.

On Oct. 11, 1910, a year and a half after he left office, Teddy accepted a spur-of-the-moment invitation to fly aboard a biplane at an airfield in Kinloch, Mo. “It was great! First class! It was the finest experience I have ever had,” Roosevelt said after his flight. “I wish I could stay up for an hour, but I haven't the time this afternoon.”

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Air Force One Over the Years | Slide 3 of 10

FDR Flies to Yalta

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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The first aircraft designated to transport a president was rejected as unsafe by the agency charged with protecting the commander in chief.

In 1943, the Secret Service, citing a sketchy performance record, refused to allow Franklin Roosevelt to use a plane named Guess Where II. The derivative of the World War II-era B-24 Liberator bomber was, however, deemed safe enough to carry first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on a goodwill tour through Latin America in 1944, as well as other top administration officials that year.

A safer modified C-54, known as Sacred Cow, complete with a special elevator to lift the president in his wheelchair, was approved for FDR’s use. He used that plane only once, to fly to Yalta in February 1945 to meet with the Allied leaders.

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Air Force One Over the Years | Slide 4 of 10

Give ’Em Hell, Harry

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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Harry Truman was the first president to earn frequent-flier status. Truman got far more use out of the Sacred Cow than FDR did. In fact, Truman loved to fly so much that he ordered up a plane of his own, a modified DC-6, which he dubbed Independence.

The new plane could fly about 100 miles per hour faster than Sacred Cow, with a cruising speed of 315 miles an hour. It also had a pressurized cabin for high-altitude flying, radar and a transmitter and receiver for top secret coded messages. Much more comfy than Sacred Cow, Independence could sleep 12.

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Air Force One Over the Years | Slide 5 of 10

Ike and the First Air Force One

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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President Dwight Eisenhower loved to fly even more than Truman. A pilot himself, Ike ordered up a four-engine, prop-driven silver Lockheed Constellation that he dubbed Columbine II (a very similar Columbine III, pictured here, was also added to the fleet).

He chose the name because as supreme allied commander in World War II, he had traveled aboard a C-121 named Columbine. Eisenhower ushered in the practice of using the presidential plane to fly for vacations and weekend getaways, from golfing to hunting and fishing. But after a potentially dangerous mix-up in a Florida control tower with a commercial flight, the military decided to call Ike's plane Air Force One.

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Air Force One Over the Years | Slide 6 of 10

The Plane That Took JFK to Dallas

Cecil W. Stoughton, White House Press Office

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Air Force One began sporting its iconic blue, silver and white colors, along with the presidential seal, in 1962. The Boeing 707 was rolled out for President John Kennedy at a cost of $8 million. JFK ordered that the aircraft abandon drab military colors to present a striking image as the worldwide symbol of America’s power and reach.

The image of Kennedy’s casket being loaded on to Air Force One after he was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963 remains burned in America’s collective memory, along with the photo of Lyndon Johnson taking the presidential oath of office aboard the same plane with Jacqueline Kennedy at his side. The plane remained in service through the Clinton administration, carrying presidents on many historic journeys.

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Air Force One Over the Years | Slide 7 of 10

The Gipper’s Design

White House Photo

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The current Air Force One, a tricked-out 747-200, was designed by President Ronald Reagan, but first used in 1990 during the administration of George H.W. Bush.

There are two identical planes, and each cost about $325 million. Those jets can fly nonstop around the world, thanks to airborne refueling capabilities. They include state of-the-art communications gear and can withstand the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear explosion. The jets are loaded with first-class seating throughout, conference rooms and a fully equipped emergency room and pharmacy. The president has a private suite with a bed, desk and bathroom in the front of the plane.

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Air Force One Over the Years | Slide 8 of 10

When the President Takes Over as Pilot

U.S. Navy photo/Photographers Mate Airman Gabriel Piper

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Normally, any plane a president flies aboard as commander in chief automatically becomes Air Force One. But there’s one exception in recent memory.

When the Secret Service refused to allow President George W. Bush to land on the deck of the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in a two-person Navy fighter jet, Bush instead made his unforgettable “Mission Accomplished” landing on the carrier in an S-3 Viking, a four-seat, twin-engine jet aircraft. The Viking was chosen to allow room for a Secret Service agent to fly along with Bush and the Navy pilot. The jet was designated Navy One when Bush was aboard.

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Air Force One Over the Years | Slide 9 of 10

Not Air Force One

Courtesy Boeing Corporation

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The Boeing 787, the Dreamliner, was once thought to be a slam dunk to replace the current Air Force One. President Barack Obama, after touring a 787 said, “The Dreamliner is the plane of the future.”

But problems with its launch and the fact that it only has two engines led the Secret Service to give it a thumbs-down. That put the 747-800, with a proven safety record, in line to be the next Air Force One.

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Air Force One Over the Years | Slide 10 of 10

Sorry, No Escape Pod

Defense Department Photo

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The idea of an escape pod aboard the president’s plane became urban legend in 1997, with the release of the film Air Force One, starring Harrison Ford.

But it won’t move from Hollywood to Joint Base Andrews, the real-world home base of Air Force One. An escape pod likely would have to be pressurized and include some kind of thrusters, given the maximum altitude and airspeed of Air Force One. It would need seats for at least one Secret Service agent and the president’s military aide who carries the nuclear launch code.

And what if the first family is aboard at the time of evacuation? Does a president just kiss them good-bye and leave? Not likely. After all, even with the mythical pod, Harrison Ford stayed on board.

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