Presidential Aviation

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2011 by hillermuseum

Flying the Nation’s Chief Executive
By Jon Welte

World travel is an integral part of the Presidency of the United States. Missions to China, summits with the Soviet Union, goodwill journeys through Latin America, and even surprise holiday visits to US soldiers in combat zones overseas have been commonplace for America’s President. Yet scarcely a century ago, Presidential international travel was unheard of.

The United States is separated from much of the world by the oceans that lap the shores of North America. Early settlers from Europe relished this isolation, yet the long transit times posed challenges to diplomacy and governance. At the dawn of the American revolution news from the first clashes at Lexington and Concord were rushed to London by sailing ship, yet even the speediest dispatches did not arrive on an English dock until six weeks after the shot heard ‘round the world.

To the leaders of a new nation, the sea represented an effectively impassible obstacle. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, no President of the United States traveled overseas while in office. It was not until Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal Zone in 1906 that a sitting US President made an official visit to a foreign nation.

In 1910, Roosevelt also became the first President to fly aboard an airplane—albeit over a year after leaving office. It was 1943 before Franklin D. Roosevelt undertook the first of three overseas trips by air to become the first President to fly in office. A Pan Am Boeing 314 flying boat carried out this unique mission, flying the President quickly and safely over seas infested with hostile submarines.

In 1947 the newly-formed United States Air Force took over operation of presidential aircraft for both domestic and overseas flights. The aircraft used their USAF registration numbers as radio call signs when communicating with air traffic controllers. In 1953, controllers confused the Lockheed Constellation carrying President Eisenhower with a commercial airliner in the same sector using a similar call sign. As a result of this incident, USAF aircraft carrying the President began to use the call sign “Air Force One” in 1959.

Since then the Air Force One mission has been flown by a dizzying array of airplanes, ranging from the diminutive twin engine Aero Commander to cargo-hauling C-17 transports. The airplane that defined the image of Air Force One, however, was the VC-137.

The genesis of the VC-137 was the Boeing 707 jetliner, used during the final two years of President Eisenhower’s administration. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy—at the encouragement of his wife, Jacqueline—commissioned a redesign of the airplane’s livery and its interior. The result transformed Air Force One into one of the world’s most recognizable aircraft, with a vibrant dual-blue hue accented with the seal of the President of the United States, the American flag emblazoned on the vertical stabilizer and the words “United States of America” boldly painted along the fuselage. The VC-137 redefined Presidential travel, flying with sufficient speed and range to make journeys to Europe and Latin America commonplace and voyages to Asia feasible for the first time. Initially associated with JFK, VC-137s flew eight US Presidents around the world.

Today the mission of long-range Presidential transport falls to the VC-25, a modified Boeing 747-200 first flown in 1990 with much the same livery as its 707-based predecessor. The expanded communications facilities onboard make the modern Air Force One a veritable flying White House, providing the President with a wide range of command and control ability. As a result, Presidential travel has increased dramatically since the VC-25 was introduced in 1990.

Fixed-wing aircraft are not the only means by which the President travels by air. President Eisenhower was the first President to travel by helicopter in 1957, and by the early 1960s helicopter operations from the South Lawn of the White House were commonplace. Today, the President’s helicopter transportation is operated by the United States Marine Corps, and any Marine helicopter carrying the President of the United States uses the call sign Marine One.

When Presidential helicopter operations were first initiated, responsibility for flying the President was shared between the US Army and US Marine Corps. The same helicopters were flown by both services, with the call sign “Army One” in use when Army aircrew operated the helicopter. One of the most memorable Presidential helicopter flights occurred when President Richard Nixon boarded a VH-3 flown as Army One after the announcement of his resignation, but before the resignation took effect. Responsibility for operation of the Presidential helicopter fleet transferred entirely to the US Marine Corps shortly afterwards as a cost-cutting move, and the last Army One flight was completed in 1976.

Today’s Marine One force is a mixed fleet of Sikorsky VH-3 and VH-60 helicopters. Derived from the SH-3 Sea King and UH-60 Blackhawk designs, these helicopters permit quick transfers for the President between ground locations and Air Force One. By tradition, a US Marine in full dress uniform is always deployed at the Marine One landing zone to salute the President as he disembarks the helicopter.

Flying across oceans and continents, aircraft have been instrumental in transforming the President of the United States into a leader of free nations everywhere. From the deserts of Saudi Arabia to the shadow of the Berlin Wall, Air Force One has transported our chief executive to the forefront of the world’s crises for nearly half a century. Washington or Jefferson would never have imagined how the office they held would be transformed by the technology of flight.

This year’s Helifest aviation exposition at the Hiller Aviation Museum features an exclusive peek into Presidential Aviation. Lt. Colonel Gene Boyer flew Army One for nearly two decades as a White House senior pilot. In collaboration with Jackie Boor, he recently completed Inside the President’s Helicopter, a detailed first-person account of Presidential aviation through the turbulent 1950s, 60s and 70s. Ms. Boor will be a featured speaker at the Helifest, and autographed copies of Colonel Boyer’s book will be available.


The Flying White House, J. F terHorst & Col. Ralph Albertazzie

Inside the President’s Helicopter, LTC Gene Boyer, downloaded 5/1/11


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: