Flying the Most Important Man in the World

In 1950, a young military officer in a crisp uniform waited outside an office in the Pentagon, nervous about the reason for his summons. Indeed, Captain William “Bill” Draper had every right to be nervous, considering that the office belonged to the acting vice chief of staff of the recently-formed United States Air Force. Finally called into the office, four-star General Lauris D. Norstad, a legend in his own right, started the clock on what would probably be the most important job interview Draper would ever appear for. Wanting to make sure that Capt. Draper was every bit the pilot and officer his superiors claimed he was, Norstad fired question after question, carefully judging the responses. Draper didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he followed orders to the letter with quiet and determined efficiency. He was perfect for the job. After being dismissed from Norstad’s office, he was rewarded with official orders to report to Bolling Air Force Base in DC to the Special Air Missions squadron, under the auspices of Military Air Transport Services. Draper had earned a spot with Special Air Missions, because Norstad had rightly judged him to be among the best aviators the Air Force had to offer. And only the best could be entrusted with the task of flying around the President of the United States of America.

Air travel quickly rose to popularity in the elite circles of western society. It gave those who could afford a ticket a trip to any major destination in the world within a timely 36 hours or less in pressurized aircraft resplendent with all the luxurious trimmings any old money or nouveau riche traveler could ever ask for, within the obvious limitations of the inside of an airliner. Domestic, international and intercontinental travel was now fast and comfortable, both highly appealing features for businessmen who had to be in places other than their hometowns for work. Therefore, it only made sense that the office of the President of the United States would also take advantage of this up and coming method of travel for diplomatic, as well as leisurely purposes. When his presence was required in Europe or elsewhere around the world, the President would now be able to get there and back to Washington DC within days of departing and arriving. This was previously unheard of, given the previous popularity of transoceanic passenger ships, especially in the years leading up to the late 1940s, when commercial aviation finally took a firm root.

A U.S. Navy Douglas RD-2 Dolphin (BuNo 9347) at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory at Hampton, Virginia (USA). Originally purchased with the presumed use as a Presidential aircraft, this Douglas RD-2 was turned over to the NACA in December 1939 without ever fulfilling its intended role. (U.S. Navy archival imagery)
A U.S. Navy Douglas RD-2 Dolphin (BuNo 9347) at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory at Hampton, Virginia. Originally purchased with the presumed use as a Presidential aircraft, this RD-2 was turned over to the NACA in 1939 without ever fulfilling its intended role. (U.S. Navy archival imagery)

Air travel wasn’t a very new concept to the White House, though it did present its own specific set of challenges that would eventually have to be overcome if the President was to travel safely between Points A and B. Former adventurer, cavalry officer and 26th POTUS Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt became the first American President to fly in 1910, though he was technically out of office at the time. Archibald Hoxsey, an aviation pioneer and a dear friend of the Wright Brothers, took Teddy up in a Wright Flyer for a brief low-altitude jaunt in the skies above St. Louis, Missouri at Kinloch Field. Highlighting the inherently dangerous side of aviation, Hoxsey lost his life when his Flyer crashed three months later. As aircraft became more reliable, powerful and safer going into the 1930s, the next President to fly was yet another Roosevelt- Teddy’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd POTUS. A Douglas Dolphin was delivered by the company to the U.S. Navy’s Anacostia base in DC. Designated the RD-2, it was refitted to carry four passengers (including the POTUS) comfortably, with a small private bunk in the rear of the aircraft. Since it was an amphibian aircraft, it had a more versatile selection of travel destinations, though it was inhibited by its 650 mile range, leaving it more suited towards domestic travel. However, the Dolphin gathered dust, as it was never used by FDR during his time in office. It was soon turned over to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA. When FDR had to travel to the famous ’43 Casablanca Conference to meet up with Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud, he flew on a Pan Am Boeing 314 Clipper Ship, stopping twice to replenish fuel and food stores. Commercial travel for the President was never meant to be the long-term solution, however.

The U.S Army Air Force, the predecessor to the USAF, was primarily worried about the safety of the President. Civilian crews were nowhere near as disciplined and as highly-trained as military aviators, and would likely not be able to deal with emergency situations the same way. Then, there was the issue of executive protection. The Secret Service, the federal agency tasked with the protection of the First Family, wanted a greater say in choosing an aircraft that would be suitable enough for the President to fly on without a considerable risk. It was decided that all future presidential travel would have to be done on military-crewed aircraft under the command of the 1254th Air Transport Squadron, stood up in 1948 at Washington National Airport, in addition to the 1111th Special Air Missions Squadron at Bolling AFB.

DAYTON, Ohio -- Douglas VC-54C "Sacred Cow" at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)
DAYTON, Ohio — Douglas VC-54C “Sacred Cow” at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

When the USAAF floated the idea to use a C-87A Liberator Express, a derivative of the B-24 Liberator, the Secret Service immediately refused due to the dubious safety record of the aircraft. Protecting a man in such an important office meant that they left absolutely nothing to chance. The first truly official presidential aircraft was called the Sacred Cow, a Douglas VC-54C built on a request filled out by the USAAF. To meet the needs of President FDR and the demands of the Secret Service, Douglas mated a C-54A fuselage with C-54B wings, added unique ailerons to the wings and an elevator in the rear, designed to lift the wheelchair-bound FDR up into the cabin back back out again. Inside were all the fittings one would expect a VIP transport aircraft to contain, including a conference table, a desk and upholstered chairs. Sacred Cow would only be used once by FDR after its delivery; he passed away in 1945 while in office, leaving the aircraft to his successor. Harry Truman, sworn into office upon the death of FDR, used Sacred Cow for a little over two years as his primary method of air travel. Interestingly enough, he signed the National Security Act of 1947 aboard that very aircraft, thus dubbing Sacred Cow as the original birthplace of the United States Air Force, the organization which would soon take charge of that very aircraft and all Presidential air transportation duties.

With the retiring of Sacred Cow from presidential usage in 1948, Truman had it replaced with a C-118 Liftmaster, called the Independence after Truman’s hometown in Missouri. A derivative of Douglas’ DC-6 airliner, the VC-118 was once again modified by Douglas to meet the needs of the USSS and the POTUS. It would contain a stateroom for the President and a 24-passenger seating area, among other things. Independence was the first presidential aircraft to fly with a distinctive livery (it was painted to resemble an eagle), setting the stage for all future aircraft used by the POTUS. It was retired in 1953 after close to six years of use, and then relegated to the Air Force for its own needs. The next President to take the Oval Office was none other than the legendary Ike- Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a highly decorated Army officer whose career is still spoken of with reverent tones to this very day. Ike introduced two Lockheed C-121 Constellations, aka Connies, into presidential service as VC-121A/Es. Both would be dubbed Columbine II and Columbine III after the official flower of the First Lady’s adopted home state of Colorado. Both would feature air-to-ground telephone and teletype systems, the first time presidential aircraft could truly be considered airborne command centers as they are today.

 DAYTON, Ohio -- Douglas VC-118 "Independence" at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)
DAYTON, Ohio — Douglas VC-118 “Independence” at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

When Ike was elected in 1952, he personally requested the aforementioned William Draper, now a Lieutenant Colonel, to fly as his number one pilot in addition to serving as his Air Force aide, given that he had already established a great working relationship with Draper, thanks to his duties as a USAAF pilot during WWII. Technicians showed up at Draper’s Maryland house, installing a special telephone landline that was connected directly to the White House. He and his team of pilots and crew would have to be ready at a moment’s notice to take the President and his staff almost anywhere in the civilized world. At that time, Columbines II and III still used regular callsigns, somewhat indistinguishable from most other Air Force and civilian passenger flights. This proved to be a hazard to the safety of the President while in the air. In 1953 over New York City, while en route to Florida, air traffic controllers mistakenly brought Columbine II, callsign Air Force 8610 into the the same relative airspace as a civilian flight, Eastern Airlines 8610. LtCol. Draper suggested that the presidential aircraft should carry a very distinct name, separating it from other ordinary commercial and military flights.

Thanks to the advice of LtCol. Draper, Air Force One became the official callsign of whatever USAF aircraft the president was aboard. And so, the name of the most famous and widely-known aircraft in the world was born.


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