The Flying White House

Presidential airplanes, past and present.

(U.S. Air Force / NASM)

In this post-election season, we offer a look at the airplane that serves as both transportation and command center for U.S. presidents—Air Force One.

The first military transport officially assigned to a president was a Douglas DC-4—popularly known as the Sacred Cow—used by Franklin D. Roosevelt beginning in 1944. Prior to World War II, only Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had left the country during their presidencies—to significant criticism at home. Public opinion would soon change.

The Sacred Cow gave way to Harry Truman’s Independence (a Douglas DC-6 named in honor of the president’s hometown), and Dwight Eisenhower’s Columbine II and Columbine III (a Lockheed Constellation and Super Constellation). Eisenhower would also be the first president to travel by jet, on a Boeing 707 nicknamed “Queenie.” It was during Eisenhower’s era that “Air Force One” was first used to identify any airplane carrying the president. As Kenneth Walsh writes in his book Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes, “Columbine II, known as Air Force 610, was carrying Eisenhower to Florida when air traffic controllers briefly confused it with Eastern 610, an Eastern Airlines plane on a commercial flight in the same area. Ike was never in danger, but [William] Draper, his pilot, decided from then on to call the president’s plane Air Force One, and the name stuck.”

Walsh also relates the story of Bill Clinton’s last trip on the presidential airplane nearly half a century later. On “a sentimental journey to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had gotten his start in politics, [Clinton] walked the length of the plane, inspected the cabins, the galley, and the conference rooms, and even paid a visit to the press compartment.” Upon leaving the White House in 2001, Clinton listed three things he would miss: “I’ll miss Camp David. I’ll miss the Marine Band. I’ll miss flying on Air Force One.”

Teddy Roosevelt


Although Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to fly while in office, his distant cousin Teddy beat him to the experience of air travel. “Col. [Theodore] Roosevelt defied death late yesterday when he went up in an aeroplane with Aviator Arch Hoxsey,” United Press breathlessly reported on October 12, 1910. Actually, the former president wasn’t in too much danger: Mindful of his VIP passenger, pilot Hoxsey, a member of the Wright Brothers Exhibition Team, never exceeded an altitude of 200 feet during his two laps around Kinloch Field near St. Louis, Missouri. “I was very careful,” Hoxsey told a reporter. “I said to myself, ‘If anything happens to him I’ll never be able to square myself with the American people.’” Roosevelt enjoyed himself immensely during the three-minute jaunt, waving enthusiastically to the cheering 10,000-plus crowds (watch a video here). “That was the bulliest experience I ever had,” Roosevelt told Hoxsey. “I envy you your professional conquest of space.”

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