The President of the United States must be ready to travel anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice. Fortunately, modern Presidents have access to a variety of transportation options, including flying aboard Air Force One. Strictly speaking, the term “Air Force One” is used to describe any Air Force aircraft when the President is on board, but since the middle of the 20th century, it has been standard practice to use the title to refer to specific planes that are equipped to transport the Commander-in-Chief.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first sitting President to fly on an airplane when, in January 1943, he traveled aboard a Boeing 314 Clipper Ship called the Dixie Clipper to attend the Casablanca Conference in Morocco. Two years later, Roosevelt again flew abroad, this time aboard a converted military plane dubbed the Sacred Cow, to join Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference. The Sacred Cow did not have a pressurized cabin, so when it flew at high altitudes, oxygen masks were necessary for everyone on board. The plane was also equipped with an elevator that could accommodate President Roosevelt and his wheelchair for boarding and disembarking.
The Presidential plane has, from time to time, served not only as a mode of transportation, but also as a “flying Oval Office” upon which historic events have taken place. President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 — which established the United States Air Force as an independent branch of the Armed Services — while on board the Sacred Cow. Another notable moment in history took place on October 10, 1985: Ronald Reagan was midflight from Chicago to Washington, D.C. when he gave the order for Navy jets to intercept the plane carrying the men who had hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro.
The Presidential Plane has also been the setting of lighter events and celebrations, such as on June 3, 1988, when the passengers of Air Force One celebrated the birthday of James McKinney — cake and all — in the air. McKinney was Director of the White House Military Office, whose duties (among others) includes maintaining and operating Air Force One. Cake was also on the menu when President Roosevelt celebrated his 61st birthday midflight on the Dixie Clipper, and again on March 16, 1974 when First Lady Pat Nixon celebrated her birthday while on board Air Force One.
In 1947, a DC-6 plane known as Independence took the place of the Sacred Cow, and with it came upgraded technology such as a radio typewriter and a pressurized cabin, which allowed for high-altitude flying without the use of oxygen masks. The Independence — named for Truman’s hometown in Missouri — featured an eagle painted on the nose, and an interior with a seating capacity of 24 (12 for sleeping).
President Eisenhower flew aboard two aircraft while in office, Columbine II and Columbine III, both named after the state flower of Colorado, and both four-engine, propeller-driven Lockheed Constellations. The original Columbine had been used by Eisenhower from 1951-52, as Commander of NATO in Europe. Columbine III remained the Presidential Aircraft throughout Eisenhower’s presidency, retiring on January 20, 1961, the day John F. Kennedy was sworn into office.
The popular use of the term “Air Force One” to refer to the Presidential airplane began with the Boeing 707 purchased for use by President John F. Kennedy. This aircraft, with the tail number 26000, flew the President to Germany, where he delivered his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin. On November 22, 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson took the Presidential Oath of Office aboard the same plane following the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Nearly 10 years later in 1972, President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to the People’s Republic of China, also on tail number 26000.
The next Air Force One to go into use (tail number 27000) is currently on display inside the Air Force One Pavilion on the grounds of the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. Used by Presidents Nixon through George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan flew in this plane more than any other President, logging over 660,000 miles in total. When he flew home to California after the inauguration of his successor, President George H.W. Bush, he again traveled aboard this plane. However, since it was no longer transporting a sitting President, it carried the name SAM (Special Air Mission) 27000 instead of Air Force One.
There are currently two Boeing 747 airplanes designated as Air Force One, and both are equipped to allow the President to conduct official business while in flight, including secure communications, medical supplies, a conference room, and a Presidential suite. Today’s Air Force One can also refuel while in flight. Guests of the President — whether they be foreign dignitaries, White House staffers, or members of the press — can attend meetings, rest, or enjoy a meal from the galleys, which can feed up to 100 people at a time.
Check out this gallery of images to see how Presidential air travel has changed over the years, from the holdings of the Presidential Libraries and Museums of the National Archives.