You may be shocked at how little you know about Air Force One, the world's most famous plane. But don't despair. One needn't get a hefty treatment of the subject. What is needed are more books like Kenneth T. Walsh's "Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes."
While Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to travel abroad, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to fly. On Jan. 11, 1943, he boarded a Pan Am Dixie Clipper called the Flying Boat and flew to a meeting with Winston Churchill in Casablanca. The meeting and the flight were secret because the military planners didn't want the Axis powers to know that the president was traveling, and thus vulnerable. Wary of air travel, FDR would only fly twice more during his presidency.
Harry Truman's plane was a DC-6 named the Independence and Dwight Eisenhower flew a Lockheed Constellation called Columbine II. But after a call-sign mix-up, Ike's pilot, Bill Draper, decided to call it Air Force One.
That name stuck, even when Eisenhower changed planes in 1959 and adopted a Boeing 707. This workhorse jet, with its 16-member crew and 50-passenger capacity, became the symbol of what we now think of when we picture Air Force One.
That 707 flew, with some internal modifications, for eight presidents. Then in 1985 Ronald Reagan ordered a new plane, and the engineers at Boeing went to work designing the 747-200B. It took five years and some $660 million to get the new plane off the assembly line, and only two were made. On Sept. 6, 1990, the 28000 [the designation of the plane's tail number] made its inaugural flight; its sister jet, the 29000, was ready a few months later.
The new Air Force One, which is still in service today, is a marvel. With a cruising speed of 600 miles per hour and a range of 9,600 miles, it can go non-stop from Washington, D.C. to Tokyo. It has a crew of 26 and can accommodate 76 passengers.
Mr. Walsh gives readers every bit of technical information they could reasonably ask for [he prudently avoids getting into the specifics of the plane's air-defense countermeasures], but what distinguishes his book is that while half of it is Jane's, the other half is a readable, genial, oral history of how the plane was used and the men who used it.
There is perhaps no clearer example of how America has changed than the example Mr. Walsh gives of Harry Truman's escapades. Mr. Truman gave the pilots a standing order to inform him whenever they crossed into Ohio airspace so that the president could use the facilities in honor of his nemesis Robert Taft. He also offers this account of May 19, 1946:
"The president decided suddenly to fly off to visit his mother. It was a Sunday and he managed to escape the White House with only two Secret Service agents and his flight crew in tow itself something of a minor miracle.
"Then, as they took off, Truman remembered that his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret, were supposed to be on the roof of the White House watching a local air show. 'Could we dive on them?' he asked the pilot.' . . . like a jet fighter? I've always wanted to try something like that.' "
And so it came to pass that the president's plane buzzed the White House.
Other presidents were less whimsical. Lyndon Johnson, obsessed with power and control, demanded magnifying mirrors in his bathroom and had a pneumatic chair installed in the plane's conference room so that he could always be the tallest man at the table.
As Mr. Walsh maps out the evolution of the office through the lens of the presidential plane, he notes how some things do not change. When the president of the United States flies, he goes to Andrews Air Force Base, where his plane is waiting with its engines revving. He walks up a flight of steps to the hatch and then turns and waves. You've seen it 100 times, but what you probably don't know is that he always waves even on those rare occasions when no one is there to watch him.
Jonathan V. Last is an online editor of the Weekly Standard.
Award-winning White House correspondent and presidential historian
Kenneth T. Walsh’s latest book,
Celebrity in Chief
A History of the Presidents and the culture of stardom
A comprehensive look at the history of America’s presidents
as “celebrities in chief”
since the beginning of the Republic.