The Commando and the Constellation: Flying Presidents and Prime Ministers

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What British Prime Minister Winston Churchill needed, more than anything, during the summer of 1942 was time. With Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps preparing to meet the British in North Africa, Churchill needed to head south to Cairo, as quickly as possible, to appoint a new commander. Transportation by boat, the safest option, was out of the question. He needed a plane—his own personal aircraft—at his disposal twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

In July 1942, Churchill got his wish. Under the cover of darkness, the prime minister climbed aboard an American B-24 Liberator painted as black as the night sky. Built by Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, a Lockheed Martin legacy company, the bomber had been stripped of its bomb racks and turned into a private transport, complete with makeshift passenger accommodations.

It was hardly a luxurious flight—Churchill often slept on a mattress in its unheated fuselage — but the plane, dubbed the Commando, did deliver him swiftly to Cairo, where he asked Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery to command British forces in Africa.

The Birth of Air Force One
In the United States, a similar Liberator bomber—outfitted like a Pullman train car with a galley, two lavatories, and nine sleeping births—was chosen to be FDR’s official aircraft. But the plane, named Guess Where II, was never officially used by FDR, serving instead to fly First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on a tour of Central and South America in 1944.

At the close of World War II, however, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, a licensed pilot, fell in love with the “smooth-sailing” abilities of a Lockheed C-121A, the military version of the Constellation. Ike named the aircraft Columbine, a sleek four-engine plane many consider to be the apex of propeller aircraft design.

By November 1952, President-Elect Eisenhower had his own Constellation—christened the Columbine II, which flew him to the Far East, fulfilling a campaign pledge to quickly end the ongoing Korean War.

It was a year later, during a flight to Florida, that the plane’s call sign was officially (and for the first time) changed to Air Force One to avoid confusion with another commercial airliner flying nearby. Its presidential suite—boasting long sofa beds and a desk with two telephones (one serving as an intercom and the other as a landline when the plane was on the ground)—became the design template for all subsequent Air Force One interiors.

The Vice President Gets His Due
Less than a decade later, Lyndon Johnson became the first vice president to ask a sitting president for his own aircraft. President Kennedy offered Johnson the use of a Lockheed Jetstar, a small, fast, fuel-efficient plane that evolved into the world’s first dedicated business-class jet.

Johnson, who often referred to the plane as the Air Force One-Half, used the Jetstar to fly to and from his ranch in the hill country of Texas, where the modestly sized aircraft could operate easily on the nearby airfield’s short runway.

The Jetstar’s unique blend of luxury and versatility paved the way for four of his successors—Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan—to use the plane for intimate conferences and short jaunts across the country.

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Sources and Additional Reading

  • Adams, Suzanne. “One of LBJ’s ‘Air Force 1½’ jets returning to Texas.” Associated Press, July 31, 2010.
  • Chandler, Graham. “Travels with Churchill.” Air & Space, July 2009.
  • Dorr, Robert F. Air Force One. St. Paul, Minn.: MBI Publishing, 2002.
  • Hardesty, Von. Air Force One: The Aircraft that Shaped the Modern Presidency. Korea: Tehabi Books, 2003.
  • Scott Field Heritage Air Park. “C-140 Jetstar.” http://scottfieldairpark.org/c140.html, accessed July 11, 2012.
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highlights
  • In 1942 Churchill needed to head south to Cairo, as quickly as possible. Under the cover of darkness, the prime minister climbed aboard an American B-24 Liberator painted as black as the night sky.
  • In November 1952, President-Elect Eisenhower had his own Constellation—christened the Columbine II, which flew him to the Far East, fulfilling a campaign pledge to quickly end the ongoing Korean War.

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