Air Force One: Taking Diplomacy to the Sky

American Icons, Featured Article, History, More
on September 30, 2015
Air Force One on the ground

In a room full of colorful characters present at this year’s second Republican debate, the production’s real showstopper went by the name SAM—Special Air Mission 27000, to be exact. The Boeing 707 formerly known as Air Force One resides at the site of the televised debate, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Regardless of the aircraft’s intended function at the GOP debate—be it a metaphor for the party itself or simply a captivating focal point—all planes operating under the esteemed designation “Air Force One” have played key roles in extending diplomacy throughout the history of presidential aviation.

While, according to, “Air Force One” can refer to the aircraft carrying the U.S. President at any given time, “it is now standard practice to use the term to refer to specific planes equipped to transport the Commander-in-Chief.” Here’s a brief history of the “flying Oval Office.”

Guess Where II
President Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first U.S. President to fly while in office when he traveled to the Casablanca Conference in 1943. Under Roosevelt’s direction, The Presidential Pilot Office, now the Presidential Airlift Group, was founded in 1944. Guess Where II, a converted military C-87A transport was to serve as executive aircraft but was retired due to safety concerns.

Sacred Cow
This Douglas Aircraft VC-54C was the first transport aircraft built specifically for presidential use, as well as the only model of its kind ever constructed. Equipped with a sleeping area and elevator to accommodate President Roosevelt’s wheelchair, its first and only journey carrying FDR was the flight to the February 1945 Yalta Conference. The plane was retired in October 1961, but not before President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 while on board, establishing the Air Force as an independent service and making the Sacred Cow the “birthplace” of the USAF.

Air Force One: Taking Diplomacy to the Skies

Sacred Cow | National Air Museum

In 1947, President Harry S. Truman replaced Sacred Cow with a Douglas DC-Liftmaster—named Independence after his hometown—painted to look like a bald eagle. According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, “Probably the plane’s most historic flight occurred when it carried President Truman to Wake Island in October 1950 to discuss the Korean situation with Gen. Douglas MacArthur.”

Special Air Missions 970, 971, 972
These Boeing 707 planes were added into the executive branch service by Eisenhower in 1958. Designated SAM 970, 971, and 972, they were the first presidential jet aircraft.

Special Air Missions 26000 and 27000
During the Kennedy Administration, a Boeing 707 (VC-137), SAM 26000, went into presidential service. President Johnson took the oath of office on board, and the aircraft continued to serve presidents up to the Clinton Administration in 1998.

In 1972, SAM 27000, another VC-137 became the primary executive aircraft and served seven presidents through 2001. This aircraft carried Nixon to California after his resignation and delivered President Carter to Germany to greet US hostages upon their release from Iran. Mileage-wise, President Reagan flew aboard SAM 27000 most frequently—traveling over 660,000 miles to 26 foreign countries and 46 U.S. states—according to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

Taking Diplomacy to the Skies

President Reagan in the SAM 27000 Conference Room | Ronald Reagan Museum

President George W. Bush traveled to Waco, Texas on SAM 27000’s last flight, after which it traveled to an airfield in San Bernardino, Calif. It was disassembled and trucked to Simi Valley, where it became the centerpiece of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum’s Air Force One Pavilion.

Melissa Giller, Chief Marketing Officer of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, says, “We received word in July of 2001 that [the Foundation] would receive the plane, on loan from the US Air Force Museum.” The foundation took possession of the plane in September of the same year, and the Air Force One Pavilion was opened on October 24, 2005. It has been open to the public ever since.

Special Air Mission 28000 and 29000

Today, Air Force One describes one of two Boeing 747-200B series aircraft highly customized to suit the needs of the President, who must be ready to travel anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice. Adorned with the words “United States of America” along with the American flag and the Seal of the President, they carry the tail codes 28000 and 29000. The President George H. W. Bush administration welcomed the first of these current aircraft in 1990.

Onboard features of Air Force One include electronics hardened against electromagnetic pulse and advanced secure communications equipment. The 4,000 square feet within the aircraft may function as a mobile command center in the event of an attack on the United States and accommodates a medical suite capable of functioning as an operating room. In addition to the doctor permanently on board, the plane contains quarters for all those who accompany the President.

Operating at a cost of over $50 per second, Air Force One is comprised of three levels, which house a cargo space on bottom, advanced communications equipment on the top tier, and living quarters in the center. The plane does not require airport facilities for landing and is able to refuel midflight.

In 2017, a new Air Force One is scheduled to enter service. What high-tech accommodations might this new aircraft hold?