How Air Force One Got Its Name
Piecing together history can be as difficult as solving a complex jigsaw puzzle, and sometimes you never can fill all the slots. So it is with determining the exact role the FAA played in naming the president’s airplane — but the agency definitely was part of the discussion back in 1954.
The origin of the call sign Air Force One became newsworthy this past March when a restored Lockheed Constellation took flight for the first time in more than a decade. The aircraft’s given name is Columbine II, but it was also the first presidential aircraft to be called Air Force One. Now the plane’s new owner, Karl Stoltzfus of Dynamic Aviation in Bridgewater, Va., wants everyone to know the true story behind the name, not the myths floating around the Internet.
“I’m not interested in a ‘better’ story,” said Stoltzfus, who has contacted presidential and Air Force historians and the former personal secretary of Air Force One pilot William Draper. “I’m interested in accurate history.”
The history of Columbine II began at a Lockheed factory in Burbank, Calif., in 1948. It left the plant with the tail number 48–610, a designation that would become important six years later. Lockheed Air Service used the plane for shuttle flights between New York and Iceland for a few months in 1949, but it was converted from military transport to a VIP aircraft in 1950.
This particular Constellation served the U.S. Air Force secretary until Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in November 1952. The plane’s first mission for the president-elect fulfilled his campaign promise to personally visit Korea in an effort to end the Korean War. Weeks later the plane officially became Eisenhower’s aircraft, and he named it Columbine II after the flower of wife Mamie Eisenhower’s adopted home state, Colorado.
The transfer of the plane to presidential service set the stage for a momentous air traffic control encounter involving Columbine II and a commercial flight with a similar call sign. But nailing down the details of that incident is a herculean research task.
“There are about six different urban legends out there on the Internet,” said Air Force historian Robert Spiers, who started the legwork in 2007 after numerous queries about how Air Force One got its name. Some stories, like the fanciful tale of a mid-air collision that damaged the undercarriage of Columbine II with Eisenhower on board, are far-fetched.
“If that had actually happened,” Spiers said, “it would have been all over the media.”
But the challenge in finding out what did happen is the lack of official records about the air traffic incident. Draper’s papers at Eisenhower’s presidential library do not mention it, and the archives of the Air Force, FAA and Secret Service do not appear to include any details.
Sarah Swan, a spokeswoman with the National Museum of the Air Force, said the only information her research division has is from secondhand sources, and she cautioned against using them because “they often embellish the story and call it a ‘near miss.’”
The most common retelling, including in a 2014 Akron Beacon Journal story about Draper’s role in coining the name Air Force One, puts Columbine II in New York airspace in December 1953. Another version says the incident happened in Florida airspace in 1954. But Spiers’ thorough review contradicts those accounts.
He pinpointed the actual date, location and details of the eventful flight by interviewing Draper’s co-pilot, Bill Thomas, and matching Thomas’ recollections with Columbine II flight records.
Eisenhower took a round-trip flight to Charlotte, N.C., on May 18, 1954, to give an address for Charlotte Freedom Celebration Day. With Columbine II at 19,000 feet over Richmond, Va., Draper checked in with the air route traffic control center as Air Force 8610, the call sign based on the plane’s tail number. When the center acknowledged the call, an Eastern Air Lines pilot whose call sign included the numbers 8610 asked if the center was trying to contact him.
In a 2012 interview, Thomas told Spiers that a Secret Service agent on the plane noted the confusion and thought the president’s plane should have a unique call sign. The agent later arranged a meeting at then-Washington National Airport that included Draper and officials from the Civil Aviation Authority (the FAA’s precursor), Air Force, Secret Service and the White House.
Draper “cited this as the reason why we needed a more positive control system,” Thomas said in a 1984 documentary about Air Force One. “And he recommended that we use Air Force One for the call sign of an airplane when it had the president on board.”
Columbine II’s stint as the presidential aircraft ended six months later when Mamie Eisenhower christened a larger Lockheed Super Constellation as Columbine III — not Air Force One. That name stayed behind the scenes until the media started using it during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who ordered a makeover of the presidential aircraft.
Until then, the call sign was so obscure that it led to another confusing incident recounted in Robert Dorr’s book “Air Force One.” An Air Force captain serving a B-52 bombardment wing in 1960 was surprised when two of his unit’s high-priority aircraft were ordered to alter their routes, altitude or timing over the Atlantic Ocean to make way for Air Force One.
Neither he nor anyone else in his outfit had heard the term, and he told his captain as much. “He retorted with, ‘My God, man — that’s the PRESIDENT!’” the captain said. The B-52s responded to that information accordingly.
The story of how Columbine II came to be known as Air Force One, even if only behind the scenes, is one of many that Stoltzfus plans to tell after turning the plane into a flying museum.
His journey to ownership began about two years ago when he read a Warbirds International story by “Connie Survivors” historian Ralph Pettersen about the plane languishing in the Arizona desert. “They were talking about it being scrapped for aluminum, and I thought, ‘That’s just not right,” Stoltzfus said. He consulted his “junior business partner,” 9-year-old grandson Gabriel, and decided to try to save Columbine II.
An initial inspection by Stoltzfus’ twin brother, Ken, confirmed that the plane was a good prospect for restoration. Stoltzfus then sent a team to Arizona to work on the plane as part of a pre-purchase process. The deal closed about a year ago, and the restoration work began in earnest. It included the removal and replacement of rubber hoses, the sealing of hydraulic leaks and a huge amount of engine work.
The plane had been exposed to harsh desert conditions in the same spot since 2003 and had only been flown for a half-hour since 1992. “You’re looking at an airplane that had gone about 47 years since it had serious maintenance,” Stoltzfus said.
Stoltzfus’ team worked with the FAA to get Columbine II back into flying shape. Aaron Lorson, the executive vice president of Dynamic Aviation, praised the agency’s professionalism and helpfulness. He said the assigned aviation safety inspector in Arizona “went above and beyond to help us get the paperwork in order.”
“He basically helped us work through our issue in a matter of days,” Lorson said. “And he finished it on a Saturday for us so that we could test fly it.”
Now that Columbine II is home, Stoltzfus is focused on making it look and feel like it did during Eisenhower’s day. His researchers have found drawings and blueprints of the plane that show the interior colors and fabrics in detail. He plans to have a website replete with photos of the plane and stories about it.
Visitors already are flocking to Bridgewater Air Park, where Columbine II will be visible until a hangar for it is complete. “There’s so much interest in the airplane that while we’re working on it, we’re going to have to have it viewable,” Stoltzfus said. His optimistic goal is to have the flying museum ready for tours in two years.
Students are one of Stoltzfus’ target audiences. He sees Columbine II as an opportunity to teach them about the 1950s. He wants them not only to see where Eisenhower sat as he wrote his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech but to appreciate why it mattered.
“I don’t want it to be the kind of airplane that just goes to an airshow for the weekend,” he said. “We want to try to tie in with some educational high school facilities perhaps, and tour, and have storyboards, and have the kids get in it and let them live history.”
A version of this story originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website. It has been reprinted with permission.