In the Lofty Steps of Presidents

Renaissance Bucket List Entry

There are only a few places in the world where you can follow, touch, and share the experiences of eleven U.S. Presidents—the White House is one; Wright Patterson Air Force Base is another. DSC_0427

The National Museum of the United States Air Force may be the largest collection of military aircraft and aviation artifacts in the world. The collection includes everything from once super-secret, super fast aircraft to weapons, documents, photographs, and personal items. There are more than 400 aircraft and 68,000 items in the museum’s collection. Largest or not, the museum has a truly unique collection tucked away in an older military hangar on Wright Patterson Air Force Base. These are aircraft that have played key and memorable roles in the post World War II history of the nation and the world, at the very highest level. This is the Presidential Collection.

There are four crown jewels of the Presidential Collection, the “Sacred Cow,” the “Independence,” the “Columbine III,” and “SAM 26000.”

Presidential Aircraft

As you enter the Presidential Collection hangar, the first aircraft you encounter is President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Sacred Cow.” Roosevelt was the first president to fly while in office when, in 1943 he flew aboard a commercial Boeing 314 Clipper Ship. Realizing that the President should not have to rely on commercial airlines, the USAAF (U.S. Army Air Force) contracted Douglas Aircraft to modify a variant of their successful DC-4 commercial airliner. DSC_0033

Designated VC-54C, the unique “Sacred Cow”—the name was bestowed on the aircraft by the press—became the first purpose-built presidential aircraft. Douglas’ modifications included a conference room with a large desk. One special feature is an elevator behind the passenger cabin to lift Roosevelt in his wheelchair into the airplane.

Roosevelt would use the “Sacred Cow” only once—his historic post-WWII trip to the Yalta Conference in the USSR in February 1945—before his death in April 1945.

The Sacred Cow remained in presidential service during the early years of President Truman’s Administration. In 1947, the “Sacred Cow” became the “birthplace” of the United States Air Force when, aboard the aircraft, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 that established the Air Force as an independent service.

In 1947 military officials ordered a modified DC-6 (military VC-118) to replace the aging VC-54C “Sacred Cow.” Nicknamed “Independence” for Truman’s hometown in Missouri, this VC-118 had state-of-the-art communications equipment, a presidential stateroom in the aft fuselage, plus seating for 24 passengers.

During this time, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of U.S. and United Nations forces in the Far East during the Korean War, had passionately wanted to carry the fighting into China and bring the war to a swift and victorious end. Truman disagreed, not wanting to directly confront China, and in October 1950, the “Independence” carried Truman to Wake Island to discuss Korean War strategy with MacArthur. Unable to obtain MacArthur’s concurrence, Truman later relieved him of his command.

In May 1953, when Truman left the White House, the “Independence” was retired as a presidential aircraft, but continued to serve Air Force organizations as a VIP transport until 1965, when it was turned over to the museum.

After only two presidents, a pattern had been established—each president would have his own personal aircraft.

President Dwight Eisenhower had been introduced to the Lockheed Constellation (military designation C-121) in 1950 while still Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and it was during this time he had first named his aircraft “Columbine” for the state flower of Colorado, Mrs. Eisenhower’s home state. After he became president, he used a second VC-121 named the “Columbine II.” Finally, in Nov. 1954, the only E-model VC-121 built became the official presidential aircraft and was christened (with water) the Columbine III by Mrs. Eisenhower. It continued in service after Eisenhower left office in 1961 and was retired to the museum in 1966.

The most familiar of the four presidential aircraft is the U.S. Air Force Boeing VC-137C aircraft (civilian designation 707) known as “SAM 26000" (Special Air Mission; tail number 26000). Built in 1962, it was first jet aircraft made specifically for use by the President of the United States. No longer would each president have his own aircraft. Over 36 years “SAM 26000" served eight presidents: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton.

Often referred to as "Air Force One"—although this designation is officially used only when the President is aboard—“SAM 26000” entered USAF service directly from the Boeing assembly line. The aircraft was painted in striking blue and white with "United States of America" on the fuselage and the Unites States flag on the tail. This paint scheme would become the standard for most “Special Air Mission” aircraft and is still used today.

Among its notable flights, “SAM 26000" flew President Kennedy to Berlin in 1963 for his famous speech at the Berlin Wall, and later to Dallas, Texas, where he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. That same day, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the new president on SAM 26000, which then carried John F. Kennedy's body and President Johnson back to Washington, D.C.

In February 1972 President Nixon flew aboard “SAM 26000" on his historic "Journey for Peace" to the People's Republic of China (the first visit by an American president to China). After 36 years and 13,000 flying hours, “SAM 26000" was officially retired in May 1998. It was replaced by the current Boeing 747 presidential aircraft.

The four presidential aircraft are open and visitors can walk through each one. These are the only aircraft in the whole museum that offer this accessibility. Therefore, this is one of the few places in the world where you can precisely follow in the footsteps of eleven U.S. Presidents.

A Note about the Presidential Collection

The collection, as well as the equally unique Research and Development Collection are housed in an older hangar on Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Access for non-military personnel is limited to a shuttle bus from the main museum facility following a brief security briefing. Sign up early for the shuttle bus. Seating is limited and tends to fill quickly.

Photography is permitted throughout the museum facilities. Note, however, that the aircraft are somewhat crowded into the hangar and it is difficult to take a photo of just one whole aircraft. The best way to take exterior photos of these aircraft is from the top of the stairs of a nearby aircraft. Very few of the aircraft in these hangars are roped off, so it is possible to walk around and under each one and examine it in as much detail as desired.

For more information on the National Museum of the United States Air Force, and more details on the Presidential and other collections go to:

Jeff Richmond

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3 Responses to In the Lofty Steps of Presidents

  1. Pingback: Not Just an Airplane Museum – A National History Lesson | Renaissance Musings

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