Skip to comments.Air Force One:The inside story of how the presidential aircraft helped change the course of history
Posted on 05/10/2003 6:43:22 PM PDT by Pokey78
Air Force One soars majestically into view, its unmistakable blue-and-white fuselage sparkling in the sky. The big jet glides in for a landing and rolls to a pinpoint stop at the edge of a red carpet. Suddenly, the president steps briskly out the door, gives his trademark windmill wave, and bounds down the stairway to greet local dignitaries and thousands of bystanders--while the glittering 747, emblazoned with the words "United States of America," serves as a backdrop. It's a dramatic scene, replicated time and time again at countless airfields around the globe.
Since the first presidential flight 60 years ago, Air Force One has become a symbol of America's power, freedom, and technological prowess and an international totem of American leadership. But there's another story about Air Force One--the inside story--that is especially compelling today. Each of the 12 "flying presidents," from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush, has created a unique habitat aboard the aircraft that reflected his personality, peccadilloes, and policies. During the course of endless hours in the air--surrounded by relatives, trusted friends, sycophantic aides, and dutiful crew members--no president can keep his guard up for long. This unique atmosphere provides glimpses in-to each man's character and leadership style that can be found almost nowhere else. "In the 60 years presidents have traveled by air," says historian Robert Dallek, "Air Force One has become an integral but all-too-neglected part of America's presidential history." Adds historian Doug Brinkley: "Aboard Air Force One, a president is away from the media frenzy below. . . . You get a contemplative space that you don't find anywhere else. You're getting a kind of tranquil oasis in a turbulent world, and a lot of decisions have been made in the sky."
In an interview for the new book Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes, George W. Bush said the American presidency would be a far different institution if not for the global reach that Air Force One has provided. "It's a majestic symbol of our country," the president said. "It reminds me of a bird, the bald eagle, in a way. It's just a powerful look. . . . Every time I see it, I'm proud of our country."
For six decades, the flights of Air Force One have traced the arc of world history. The presidential jet carried Richard Nixon on his pathbreaking trips to China in February 1972 and the Soviet Union in May 1972. In the 1980s, the plane took Ronald Reagan to his historic summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, Reykjavik, and Moscow. It carried Bill Clinton on more foreign trips than any other president--133 over eight years. And it hopscotched George W. Bush from one secure location to another in the harrowing hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The journey showed not only that Air Force One could be an effective command center in a crisis but that Bush could be a decisive commander in chief under extremely difficult circumstances.
From the beginning, Air Force One has had a way of revealing presidents as they really are. Lyndon Johnson was endlessly demanding and sometimes abusive to his staff, and he even installed a "throne chair" so he could raise himself imperiously above everyone sitting in his presence. Richard Nixon was a brilliant thinker, but he was also a near paranoiac who wrote sheaves of memos at 35,000 feet outlining schemes to outmaneuver or ruin his adversaries. Gerald Ford brought decency and common sense to all his relationships but could never convey his best qualities to the public. Jimmy Carter was a man of righteous ideals, but his often-distant manner on the plane made him unpopular with many of those who served him there. George Herbert Walker Bush endeared himself to staffers on the plane with his generosity and consideration but seemed too isolated from the lives of everyday American voters.
As with so many other innovations, presidential flight started with Franklin Roosevelt, who traveled secretly in 1943 to meet Winston Churchill in Casablanca and plan the Allied invasion of Europe. The grueling journey--42 hours in the air each way--underscored FDR's stamina, good cheer, and inquisitiveness. Roosevelt departed from Dinner Key off Miami on January 11 aboard a hulking, prop-driven Pan Am Dixie Clipper nicknamed the "Flying Boat." Despite the president's vigorous public persona, the polio that paralyzed his legs made air travel a hardship for him. Typically, he made the best of it. After takeoff at dawn, Roosevelt changed into an open-collar shirt, a sweater, and baggy slacks and began eagerly looking out the window at the azure waters off south Florida's Atlantic coast. He kept track of the plane's position with navigation charts he spread out before him. "He didn't ask for special privileges," said Otis Bryan, his pilot for part of the trip. "In fact, we removed several seats to make him a bed, but he preferred to sit up and stay awake because the others in the plane didn't have similar conveniences."
For the final leg from Trinidad back to Florida, the Dixie Clipper's staff prepared a special meal for the president to celebrate his 61st birthday--caviar, turkey, potatoes, peas, coffee, and a big cake, all brought aboard at Port of Spain, Trinidad. Roosevelt, who loved being the center of attention, cut the cake with a small metal spatula as he sat at a cramped table covered with white linen. He carved big slices with gusto and handed the desserts to each staffer and crew member aboard.
Stealth. In 1944, the military designed another aircraft specifically for Roosevelt's use--a Douglas C-54 Skymaster four-engine prop plane. Irreverent journalists promptly named it the "Sacred Cow." It contained an electric elevator to lift Roosevelt and his wheelchair aboard. The elevator was raised from the ground into the plane's belly, then a door neatly folded over the opening so an outsider would never realize the wheelchair compartment existed. Roosevelt didn't want anyone beyond his inner circle to know of his affliction, and he didn't want any spies to figure out which plane he was on.
After FDR died, in 1945, Harry Truman had a new plane designed. With the war over, Truman wanted to use the aircraft as a tool of the presidency, to show he was an activist leader willing to fly anywhere to get his job done. He called his four-engine plane "Independence," for his hometown in Independence, Mo., and for the feeling it gave him when he flew on domestic trips or abroad. Unlike Roosevelt, Truman loved to travel by air. The way he did it reflected his feisty personality and his desire to enhance his image. Truman had the Independence painted to resemble an eagle, complete with white beak at the front of the plane and blue tail feathers emblazoned on the rear of the fuselage. Ever the schmoozer, Truman wandered the aircraft, gabbing with staff members, greeting guests, chatting up the crew in the cockpit. He played poker with aides and savored a snort or two of bourbon during especially long flights. On one occasion, he had his pilot playfully "dive-bomb" the White House--twice--to impress his wife and daughter, who were watching an air show from the roof.
Truman's stolid and staid successor, Dwight Eisenhower, began his presidency in January 1953 with a plain, four- engine prop-driven Lockheed Constellation. But Ike showed himself to be more innovative than critics expected when he became the first president to fly by jet on Aug. 26, 1959. He used a four-engine Boeing 707, known in military parlance as a VC-137A. The jet opened up new vistas for the White House, enabling presidents to personally bring their ideas to every corner of the globe in a reasonable time. Starting Dec. 3, 1959, Ike flew around the world in 18 days, traveling from Washington to Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Greece, Tunisia, France, Spain, and Morocco.
Stage set. But it took John Kennedy to bring presidential travel fully into the modern age. In succeeding the 70-year-old Eisenhower, the charming 43-year-old Bostonian represented a break from the somnolent conformism of the '50s and, with his glamorous wife, seemed to embody modernity itself. The image-conscious Kennedy made Air Force One more important than ever as a link between the president and the people. He played to the increasingly powerful medium of television by making it dramatically easier to cover his arrivals and departures. They always provided great pictures. Following Jackie's advice, he had the plane redecorated with fine art and painted with the subdued blue and white still in use today.
JFK knew the Secret Service and the military were using a special code name--Air Force One--for any Air Force plane carrying the president, and he also knew the brass preferred to keep the name secret as a security precaution. But Kennedy believed the Air Force One moniker had a certain majesty to it, so he authorized aides to use the term in public. This has been the name for the presidential plane ever since.
Sadly, it is JFK who is associated with the most famous moment in the plane's history--the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One at Dallas's Love Field a few hours after Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
Through the administrations of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, the plane carried America's message to the world. But it was Ronald Reagan who brought the aircraft to new heights of fame with his three superpower summit meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Geneva, and Moscow. Air Force One seemed to be bridging the gap, finally, between America and what Reagan called the "evil empire" of communism.
During his flights, Reagan revealed dimensions of his character not often seen elsewhere. He was more of a thoughtful writer than the public imagined, spending long hours penning entries into his leatherbound diary, which became the basis for his memoirs. On his return from Reykjavik, a shaken Reagan, alone in his cabin, pondered what had gone wrong, while his staff planned a crucial public-relations offensive to explain why the talks with Gorbachev had broken down. Shortly before landing, he emerged from his funk, newly confident that everything would work out, and he approved the PR plan after only the sketchiest of briefings.
George Herbert Walker Bush loved to fly, especially abroad--foreign policy was his favorite part of the presidency. Aboard the plane, Bush revealed himself as a decent and generous man, deeply liked by his flight crew and staff. "He'd give you the shirt off his back," said a former steward. But he could never convey these positive traits to the public. And he exhibited some interesting quirks. Shortly after becoming president, he banned broccoli from Air Force One. He had hated the vegetable since his mother made him eat it as a child, and he told aides he wasn't going to tolerate it anymore.
Bill Clinton's behavior on Air Force One reflected all his positives and negatives--his intellectual brilliance and his lack of discipline, his sophistication and his vulgarity, his inquisitiveness and his fatal flaw of self-indulgence. Over eight years, he flew a total of 1,409,090 miles--more than twice the mileage of the next most-traveled president, Reagan (who flew 675,640 miles during his eight years). "There is a certain sort of camaraderie that happens on the plane that leads you to unburden yourself, and I often did that," Clinton said in an interview. ". . . And there's a certain way that people feel freer to say whatever it is they're thinking when you're on that plane. . . . It was like a safe community."
In the air, Clinton alternated intense bouts of work with periods of carefree socializing. Air Force One was the perfect venue for the all-night bull sessions he savored. Sometimes he exhausted members of his staff with observations about leaders he had just met, the places he had seen, the issues that were on his mind. He talked sports, books--anything that struck his fancy--sometimes while he was watching movies, playing cards, or doing crossword puzzles.
Sometimes he let his volcanic temper erupt. En route to Chicago in mid-1993, Clinton noticed in his briefing book that his aides had nixed a visit with Mayor Richard Daley, who had wanted to see him. "Who the hell could make such a dumb . . . mistake?" the president yelled. His rage built on itself, and some of his aides thought he might even get violent. "Why are we not organized to do this?" shouted Clinton, his face beet red. He complained that he was constantly overscheduled and was getting bogged down in trivia. But his infamous anger dissipated in a few minutes (as it usually did). A meeting with Daley was hastily arranged by phone from the plane.
George W. Bush realized the PR value of Air Force One almost immediately. On a trip to Montana in early 2001, the new president looked out a window and saw cars lined up for miles around the Billings airport. Local folks were there to catch a glimpse of his plane. After that, Bush made a habit of adding a riff in his arrival remarks about how he had just flown in on Air Force One. He knew the connection was powerful.
Today, Bush starts most trips in his cabin and sometimes invites friends, members of Congress, or special guests in for a spell. "He's always an affable person, and that continues aboard the plane," says White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. On day trips, Bush prefers leaving Washington at dawn so he can get home early enough for dinner with his wife, Laura. Replicating his pattern from the West Wing, Bush doesn't like lengthy memos and extensive briefings aboard the plane, preferring brief summaries given orally by his senior staff.
Bush presided over the single most dramatic day in Air Force One's history. His airborne decisions on Sept. 11, 2001, set a bold and dangerous course for the country and the world. It was on that day, using Air Force One as a flying crisis center, that he decided to confront and vanquish international terrorism. This set in motion the strategy that resulted in the invasion of Afghanistan, the conflict with Iraq, and the far-reaching doctrine of pre-emptive war that has caused so much furor around the globe.
Excerpted from Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes by Kenneth T. Walsh. Copyright (c) 2003 by Kenneth T. Walsh. Published by Hyperion.
The POS turned AF1 into an airborne whorehouse.
Clinton was ever the vulgar one.
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