The Origins Of Air Force One – The Presidential Aircraft

Posted: April 14, 2020

Updated: April 14, 2020

  • The Famous Projection Of US Power Began More Humbly
  • The Origins Of Air Force One Call Sign Informal & Adhoc
  • From Presidential Prop-Propelled Aircraft To Modern Jets
Image source: NASA/Bill Ingalls via Wikimedia Commons

Today there are few aircraft more famous than the US President’s plane. However, the origins of Air Force one are far more humble than today’s converted Boeing made behemoths. In the days when air travel was more risky, and less necessary, the President simply hired aircraft. The first President to fly whilst in office was Roosevelt, travelling to the Casablanca Conference during the war. That was in a commercial aircraft. Two years later at Yalta he had his own aircraft.

It was progress in the field of communications that powered the origins of Air Force One. With the advent of reliable long distant radio, a President need never be out of touch. This permitted foreign travel without the isolation it would previously have caused. However, few commercial aircraft could provide the facilities required. The Boeing 314 flying boat Roosevelt used to go to Casablanca had the range but was still just a passenger plane. So the USAAF resolved to change that.

In seeking to create a plane for their commander in chief they promptly converted a C-87A transport aircraft. It came with radios, sleeping compartments and called “Guess Where II”. However, the one thing it didn’t have was a particularly good safety record. Indeed the Secret Service refused to sign off on it. They then modified a C-54 Skymaster to suit their needs naming it the “Sacred Cow”. This remained the Presidential aircraft until after the Second World War. 

Al Gore

“Airplane travel is nature’s way of making you look like your passport photo.”

Secret Service Refused C-87A Liberator Express

In the post-war years, a C-118 Liftmaster with the head of a bald eagle on its nose replaced the C-54. They called that Independence. Eisenhower was the last President to have a propeller driven aircraft, but the first to truly have an Air Force One. Prior to 1953, the aircraft used regular Air Force flight numbers. However, when Air Force 8610 entered the airspace of Eastern Airlines 8610 they quickly coined a new name. The origins of Air Force One as a call sign then are somewhat adhoc. It was used quite informally only becoming official in 1962 under Kennedy.

Origins Of Air Force One 
JFK and the Air Force One in ’62 – Image source: Robert Knudsen / Public domain

Whilst Eisenhower owned the first jet planes for the president, specially built Boeing 707s, Kennedy made them famous. Not particularly by travelling on them but by having his replacement sworn in on one just hours after his assassination. They swore in Lyndon B Johnson aboard SAM 26000 in 1963. That specific aircraft continued to see service as a Presidential transport right through to the Clinton administration. Although in later years in a back-up role.   

Chuck Yeager

“If you can walk away from a landing it’s a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it’s an outstanding landing.”

Origins Of Air Force One Call Sign Date To 1953

SAM 26000 and its replacement SAM 27000 were the main Presidential aircraft until 1990. George H W Bush was first to gain the aircraft we all recognize today. The origins of Air Force One, the modern icon, begin with the 747. Based on this reliable and sturdy airframe the new VC-25A aircraft was designed for a new age. EMP shielding, secure communications networking, and advanced command and control systems make it all but a flying White House.

The origins of Air Force One then might have begun a little shakily. Just ask the Secret Service about that C-87A they turned down. However, as air travel became the norm around the world successive administrations have taken to the skies. In progressively more advanced aircraft they have taken with them all the trappings of office and the needs of government. Today the President’s plane is a visible projection of US power. Wherever it goes, America travels with it. 

Read more about Space Force One

We take a look at the origins of Air Force One the call sign of the US President’s aircraft.

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