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The First Air Force One

A historic Lockheed Constellation used by President Eisenhower was nearly abandoned and forgotten. Now, America’s business airplane is being restored as a flying museum.

When Dynamic Aviation’s team got to the boneyard, Columbine II was not even tied down. Dust-covered, the aluminum still caught the Arizona sun. “It was sitting at Marana Regional Airport [AVQ],” said Brad Holliday, maintenance manager for the First Air Force One restoration project. “Not on the ramp, it was pushed back into the sand, with some other derelicts.”

Columbine II is the name given to a 1948 Lockheed Constellation VC-121A by first lady Mamie Eisenhower. The Constellation flew President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first family, his staff and visiting dignitaries from 1952 to 1954 – the first airplane to be designated Air Force One.

But when Dynamic’s team found it in 2015, it was nearly forgotten. Retired by the military in 1968, the presidential airplane was purchased with four other retired Constellations for forestry spraying in the Canadian Rockies.

“I crawled up into the No. 1 engine nacelle, and surprised a bird from her nest. Repositioning a couple rattlesnakes, and some scorpions – that’s how we got started.”

Brad Holliday, First Air Force One Maintenance Manager

“For many years, this was considered the ‘Lost Air Force One,’” said Phil Douglas, executive director of First Air Force One. “It was never outfitted with tanks, but used as a parts plane for the other sprayers – and then parked for 25 years.”

A call from the Smithsonian in 1980 stopped the airplane from being scrapped, and it briefly was made flyable again for Eisenhower’s 100th birthday commemoration in 1991. Then it was nearly forgotten in the desert.

“When we first got there to inspect it, I crawled up into the No. 1 engine nacelle, and surprised a bird from her nest,” Holliday recalled. “Repositioning a couple rattlesnakes and some scorpions – that’s how we got started.”

@nbaatiktok Did you know the story of the first Air Force One? 🛩️ Columbine II, a Lockheed Constellation VC-121-A, was the very first aircraft to carry the now-iconic Presidential call-sign. In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower made history as the first Commander in Chief to fly on it. A mix-up in Virginia's skies led to a groundbreaking solution: a unique call sign for Presidential flights, always including the number one. 🇺🇸Discover the incredible history behind America's first business aircraft. #happypresidentsday #presidentsday #aviationhistory #aviationhistoryfacts #presidentalfacts #aviation #bizav #corporateaviation #businessaviation #aircraft ♬ original sound – NBAA

Ike’s Flying Office

With four Curtiss-Wright R-3550 engines, each powered by 18 cylinders, the Constellation (or “Connie”) was the “Star of the Skies” before the jet age. There had been presidential aircraft before Columbine II, but it was the first to receive the ‘Air Force One’ call sign and one of the last propeller-driven airplanes to carry the president.

“This was Ike’s primary mode of transportation for the first two years of his presidency, and he traveled over 63,000 miles on it. He flew to Europe on this plane, to Canada, Mexico and across the country,” Douglas explained during an informal tour of the stripped-down cabin.

The First Air Force One is now based in Bridgewater, VA, where the restoration effort proceeds in Dynamic Aviation’s vintage aircraft hangar.

Plywood gangplanks rattled underfoot, overhead the interior frames of the cabin were exposed. Douglas stood in an echoing, empty space forward of the aft loading door. “This was the stateroom, and the president’s desk was right here,” he gestured. “Eisenhower used this as his traveling office to conduct America’s business.”

“This is a historical treasure of our country. … It carried the president. There’s nothing like it.”

Brad Holliday, First Air Force One Maintenance Manager

Air Force 8610

After his leadership role in World War II, much of Eisenhower’s presidency was spent building the postwar order. “He was the first president to use a tool like this airplane to go around the world,” said Douglas.

Eisenhower’s first flight on the airplane took place before he even took office, as president-elect, to visit U.S. troops in Korea. A year later, he flew to the Bermuda Conference, meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and French President Joseph Laniel on the future of West Germany.

Three days later, in December 1953, Eisenhower was due to address the United Nations. He wrote his “Atoms for Peace” speech on the flight from Bermuda to New York – right where Douglas was now standing.

Douglas pointed to the Constellation’s three vertical stabilizers. “This plane’s tail number is N8610,” he said. “Until 1954, air traffic control called it Air Force 8610, whether the president was aboard or not.”

It was a flight from Charlotte, NC, back to Washington, DC, that inspired the adoption of the famous call sign. Eisenhower was returning from a speech, and in airspace over Richmond, VA, controllers were getting calls from both Air Force 8610 and Eastern Airlines Fight 8610.

After landing back in Washington, Eisenhower’s pilot, Col. William Draper, called a meeting to always identify the flight carrying the president: It would be Air Force One.

“… When you step onto the airplane, you’ll touch American history. You’ll sit at the desk where Eisenhower sat, and see the fold-down bunks in the staff seating rooms.”

Phil Douglas, Executive Director of First Air Force One

America’s Business Airplane

Dynamic Aviation’s late founder, Karl Stoltzfus, dispatched a maintenance team to Arizona after discovering Columbine II was resting there. Brian Miklos led half a dozen Dynamic technicians into the desert. Volunteer mechanics from the Mid-America Air Museum flew out to join the effort. It took eight trips – weeks at a time – to make Columbine II airworthy for the ferry flight back to Bridgewater.

“This is a historical treasure of our country,” said Holliday. “I like working on old aircraft, but this is very special. It carried the president. There’s nothing like it.”

After Stoltzfus died, the First Air Force One nonprofit was established to complete the restoration, and give the historic airplane back to the American people, as a flying museum.

“That’s our goal, to restore this airplane to look just as it did when Ike flew on it,” said Douglas. “To make it accurate and authentic, so that when you step onto the airplane, you’ll touch American history. You’ll sit at the desk where Eisenhower sat, and see the fold-down bunks in the staff seating rooms.”

“This was not just the first Air Force One, it was America’s business airplane, and we want to share it with the world.”

Phil Douglas, Executive Director of First Air Force One

Douglas pointed to a diagram shared by the National Archives, pinned to a bulletin board in the hangar. It notes the dimensions of every seat and shelf in the cabin, the color and manufacturer of the curtains.

“We’re also updating all the aircraft’s systems, so that it can fly around the country, to airshows and events, where people can see it and relive this part of our history,” Douglas explained, “This was not just the first Air Force One, it was America’s business airplane, and we want to share it with the world.”

Restoration Underway

Shortly after arriving in Arizona, Stoltzfus realized the first Air Force One could be made flyable again. Finally, a year later, in March 2016, a crew who had logged time on Constellations for agricultural spraying flew the airplane to Bridgewater.

At Dynamic Aviation, a team of staff technicians is redoing the wiring, updating the hydraulics, and replacing cabin interiors that were originally made of wood, so the aircraft meets modern safety standards.

“We’re working to restore the airplane so that it looks as it did in 1953 and as an operational, reliable aircraft that’s safe to fly and easier to maintain,” said Holliday.

On the flight deck, Holliday and Douglas point to the original instrument panel. This will be replaced with modern glass avionics, but a fully accurate covering will also be made, with steam gauges in the exact layout of a 1948 Constellation.

Their team is assisted by a large pool of volunteers, including retired Air Force technicians and local students.

“We also have interns from the high school and two nearby universities,” said Douglas. “We partner with an A&P program at the community college. The interns love to come in, get hands-on with this airplane, and be part of the restoration.”

Learn more at firstairforceone.org.

The ‘Connie’ – Star of the Skies

TWA Lockheed Constellation

In 1939, Howard Hughes had bought TWA, and to make it a global carrier, he ordered a clean-sheet airliner. It had to fly intercontinental routes, at unheard-of speeds and fit inside Hughes’ existing hangars.

To meet those specifications, Lockheed engineers designed the Constellation, with its unique dolphin-shaped fuselage, which keeps the large triple-tail out of the prop wash.

“Some would say it is the most beautiful airplane ever flown,” said Brad Holliday, First Air Force One maintenance manager. “It was a huge step up in technology, pressurization, cabin size, performance and speed. Its max was 350 mph. At the time, that was as fast as most fighter planes. And the Connie was carrying 50 passengers.”

The Constellation established what we think of as modern airline travel, before the jet age, and after a brief stint as a troop transport at the end of World War II.

In 1944, Hughes flew a C-69 Constellation himself, with movie star Ava Gardner aboard, from Burbank, CA, to Washington, DC, in under seven hours as a demonstration for the Air Force. On the return flight, the Constellation picked up Orville Wright. Although he lived another four years, it was Orville’s final flight aboard an aircraft.

Snapshot

Aircraft: The First Air Force One is a Lockheed Constellation VC-121A

Base: Being restored in Dynamic Aviation’s vintage aircraft hangar at Bridgewater Air Park (VBW)

Personnel: An executive director, a maintenance manager, two full-time mechanics and a large team of volunteer mechanics

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