The Things It Carried

How an unremarkable Convair C-131H transported cops, patients, prisoners, and Gerald Ford.

As vice president, Gerald Ford (with pipe) toured the country in a VC-131H, one of several in the executive fleet. (David Hume Kennerly / Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library)
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An aging C-131H with a stately past lifted off from an airfield in Saskatchewan, Canada, last spring on a most unceremonious mission. Leveling off at about 3,000 feet, the twin-engine turboprop dumped 1,750 imperial gallons of red-tinged flame retardant on burning pine and spruce forests in the province’s northern reaches. Fifty-three years after rolling off an assembly line in San Diego, California, the Convair works as a “water bomber” for the Canadian government.

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It’s the latest incarnation for an airplane that once enjoyed the world’s most famous call sign: Air Force One. Now it answers to the more prosaic Tanker 475. The Convair is a bare-bones workhorse, its executive seating having been ripped out decades ago. “From our standpoint, it’s all extra weight,” explains Steve Roberts, executive director of Saskatchewan’s Fire Management & Forest Protection Branch, which bought the airplane in March 2006.

The hardy Convair has had a storied career of transport missions. Its 25,046 airframe hours include service with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Department of State, and Marshals Service; the Peruvian National Police; and a Michigan cargo company. Among transports, it enjoys an exalted distinction: For at least a day, it was the presidential aircraft. On October 26, 1972, President Richard Nixon used it for a weekend campaign trip to Huntington, West Virginia, and Ashland, Kentucky. “I thought this airstrip was a little short,” Nixon told the crowd at the Huntington airport. “That is why we had to bring the Convair in.”

Its most frequent VIP customer, however, was Vice President Gerald Ford, who flew on it dozens of times from the fall of 1973 until he succeeded Nixon on August 9, 1974. As a reporter for Newsweek magazine, I’d been assigned to cover Ford, with orders to “live with him”; my editor was convinced the Watergate scandal, which had broken in the summer of 1972, would force Nixon to resign and that Ford would soon be president. It was an exhilarating experience for a 28-year-old rookie—but not because of Ford’s airplane.

Those big, powerful Allison engines were unbelievably noisy, and the cabin wasn’t exactly plush. With a range of 1,500 miles, the Convair couldn’t get Ford to the West Coast without refueling. Even shorter day trips, which he favored, were excruciatingly slow. On an early flight, as the pilots engaged the engines, a Secret Service agent, poking fun at the airplane’s lack of speed, yelled: “Quiet, please. Prepare to activate slingshot.” From then on, the airplane was known as Slingshot Airlines.

Ford had mixed feelings about his little Air Force Two. In 1976, he inscribed a photo of the two of us chatting aboard his Boeing 707 Air Force One: “Sure does beat Air Force #2.” Twenty years later, in another of our interviews, he jokingly called the Convair “that horrible airplane.” Yet the Convair fit Ford’s distinctly un-imperial style. He liked its lack of ostentation and the fact that it wasn’t a gas-guzzler, like the big jets in the VIP fleet.

“That little plane was pure Gerald R. Ford: simple, comfortable, down-to-Earth, and reliable,” says retired Colonel Bob Blake, Air Force assistant to Ford when he was vice president and president.

The Convair’s registration plate lists its date of manufacture as September 20, 1954, and its serial number as 217. The Air Force christened it a C-131D and nicknamed it “Samaritan” because in its early years it was used for medical evacuations. A dozen years after joining the Air Force fleet, the airplane was outfitted with 2,900-horsepower Allison T56-A-4 engines and fancier interiors and converted to an executive transport. It (along with three other Samaritans) was redesignated a VC-131H and assigned to VIP transport duty at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. In 1978, after 24 years with the Air Force, the Convairs were transferred to the U.S. Naval Reserve. Two years later they were moved to Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 52 (VR-52) and then VR-48, based, ironically, directly across the runways from where they had been stationed at Andrews for 12 years.

“I fell in love with the aircraft,” recalls former VR-48 commander Ryan Swah, now a FedEx pilot. “It was reliable, did a nice mission, and never broke down. But it vibrated a lot and sure was noisy.”

In 1990, the squadron converted to McDonnell Douglas C-9 jets and transferred its three Convairs to the state department’s Bureau of International Narcotics, where on February 1, no. 42815 began a new life as a drug interdiction transport. But not before the galley and the rest of its executive features were stripped out and replaced with industrial-strength seating for about 48 soldiers and drug enforcement agents. The airplane was re-registered N7146X.

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