From the archives: What it takes to fly the President


14 min read

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the February 1963 edition of Air Facts. Air Force One, at the time, was a Boeing VC-137C, the same design as the 707-320B. Delivered in late 1962, it had a top speed of 620mph and a range of 7,000 miles. The airplane cost $7,900,000 (about $78M today). Air Force One’s current designation is the VC-25A based on the Boeing 747-200B. It’s been reported that a replacement VC-25, based on the B747-800, would cost more than $4B. Sadly, just nine months after this original publication, President Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas, TX.

What It Takes to Fly the President

 By

 James H. Winchester

Air Facts magazine cover, January 1963

Air Facts – January, 1963

Each time the president of the United States boards his blue-and-white, black-nosed jet, marked only with the words “United States of America,” he is taking a part in a fantastically complicated drama. Meticulous detail and planning go into every trip, whether it is a 50 minute flight to New York or a week-long, multi-nation State visit abroad. Speed and split-second timing are essential. Aboard his eight-million-dollar Air Force jet transport, with its cherry-wood paneling and wall-to-wall blue and gold carpeting, the nation’s number one air traveler speeds along at 600-miles-an-hour with top priority.

This Presidential preclusiveness was substantiated early during his first year in office. Scheduled to meet with Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in Key West, Fla., the President was flying south from Washington. The Prime Minister, in his own jet, was coming up from the Caribbean. Pushed along by tail winds, Macmillan’s plane was over Key West before its estimated time of arrival. President Kennedy was still in the air, north of Miami.

“Request permission to land,” the British pilot radioed Key West.

“Negative,” was the reply. “Hold and circle.”

“Impossible,” fumed Macmillan’s pilot. “We have a Code Two (meaning Macmillan) aboard.”

“Sorry,” came back the Key West controller, “We have a Code One (meaning President Kennedy) ahead of you. Hold and circle.”

So the Prime Minister’s pilot had to do just that until President Kennedy, who wanted to be on hand to extend personal greetings to Macmillan when he landed, could arrive.

Air Force One

Air Force One, as the Presidential plane is identified when the Chief Executive is aboard, is a swept-wing Boeing VC-137C, basically the same design as the 707-320B, an intercontinental jetliner flown by many airlines. Delivered in late 1962, it has a top speed of 620 miles-an-hour, and a non-stop range of 7000 miles — 2500 miles more than the previous Presidential jet. The new plane cost $7,900,000, which is about two million dollars more than the commercial airline model. The additional cost is due, in part, to the plane’s specially-designed and outfitted interior, and an extraordinary amount of sophisticated communication and navigation equipment, much of which is not yet available to commercial air carriers. Its radio-telephone system, for instance, is powerful enough for direct communication to any other ground or air station in the world.

Air Force One VC-137C

Air Force One, the Boeing VC-137C, was basically the same design as the 707-320B with a top speed of 620mph and a range of 7,000 miles.

The 86-man maintenance crew, four of whom fly with the plane wherever it goes, follows usual civilian practices, except that each jet engine is changed every 700 hours, instead of every 1200 to 2000 as by the airlines. No work is ever done on one of the engines without one of the Presidential plane’s two flight engineers being present.

But there is much that is not so usual involved in a flight by the President of the United States.

Security and safety measures are severe. The plane’s jet fuel, for instance, is put into a special truck and guarded for 24 hours before refueling. It is checked at least twice with a chemical analyzer to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with. Only once has a fuel load for the President’s plane been condemned. It was in Vienna. Rust from the storage tank, not sabotage, was responsible. Before any take-off, too, an official car drives down the runway looking for small pieces of debris which could be sucked into the plane’s jet engines, or puncture its tires.

There are two automatic pilot systems aboard the plane, but they are never used when the President is aboard. “We hand-fly it all the way then,” reports soft-spoken 45-year-old Colonel James B. Swindal, the aircraft’s commander. In flight, two of the three pilots in the ten-man crew remain strapped in their seats at all times. Unless specifically summoned by the President, none of the seven men on the flight deck ever goes back into the cabin. They have their own lavatory and their own galley. Meals are served in relays, two hours apart, to avoid the possibility of simultaneous food poisoning. Six electronic and mechanical navigational systems, and eight radio receivers and transmitters aboard the plane keep it in constant touch with ground stations. Over the United States or Canada, the plane is tracked from take-off to landing by ground radar stations of the North American Air Defense Command. The plane’s position is determined every 30 minutes by the navigator, Major Dave Odor, of Marysville, Calif., and flashed to the Air Force’s Command Post, three floors below the Pentagon. From there it is relayed almost instantaneously to air traffic control and air rescue units along the path of the Presidential flight.

Private Airspace

For 30 minutes beforehand, and for 15 minutes after the plane passes, all other aircraft in the vicinity of Air Force One are diverted elsewhere. Military jet fighters, able to talk to the Presidential plane on a secret channel, enforce this rule. Similarly, all airfields used by the President are closed to other traffic for a half hour before his arrival, and for 15 minutes after he departs.

When the President flies across the ocean, U. S. Coast Guard and Navy ships are stationed 500 miles apart along the route. Air Rescue Service planes, with paramedics aboard, are in the air, too. In mid-ocean, the rescue planes are never more than five minutes away.

Despite this protective picket line, Colonel Swindal rehearses his crew in a Washinton swimming pool in emergency evacuation procedures at least once a month. “They say these jets will float,” says the President’s personal pilot succinctly, “but I’d hate to be the one to try the theory out.”

Procedures for getting the President safely down and out of his plane in any emergency are well detailed. The swivel seat in which he sits has extra floor bracings and three-inch thick foam rubber cushions, designed to take 11 times the force of gravity during the shock of any emergency landing or water-ditching. In such an event, the President’s chair would be turned toward the rear, his tie removed, loose articles taken from his clothing, and pillows placed behind his head.

Baggage

All baggage going aboard the plane is inspected for possible explosives ꟷ even that of the Secretary of State, unless he carries it by hand. Passengers are instructed to pack their bags personally, then not to let them out of their sight until a special van picks them up to carry them to the plane. Recently, a Cabinet member accompanying the President to Palm Beach forgot this security rule. He had to leave his luggage behind to follow on a courier plane. The President’s baggage is not handled with the others. It goes separately into his cabin with him, marked by special red tags. No bags, incidentally, have ever been lost on a Presidential flight. If one of the President’s bags were misplaced, however, the mere words, “The President wants it,” are enough to bring out an Air Force jet to fly it to him.

Four special Air Force guards, trained by the FBI, travel with the Presidential plane at all times. These men are the first off and the last aboard, wherever the plane lands. On the ground, two of them are on duty with the plane around-the-clock. Automatic warning devices surround the craft, and no unauthorized person can approach it without setting off an alarm. At all airports, Secret Service men pre-pick an isolated corner of the field, far from crowded terminal buildings, in which to park the plane. No one can board it unless their name is on a special access list, prepared by Colonel Swindal, and, even then, they have to be personally recognized. There are no exceptions. 

One Cancellation

Bad weather was responsible for President Kennedy’s only uncompleted flight in his two years of aerial commuting, during which time he has covered over 120,000 miles and flown for 275 hours. After a 59-minute trip in fog and rain from Washington, Colonel Swindal landed with the help of radar at Otis AFB, on Cape Cod. An Army helicopter was ready to fly the President to his nearby summer home at Hyannis Port.

“The ceiling is below limits,” Major General Ted Clifton, his Army aide, informed the President, as they stepped from Air Force One.

“Let’s try it anyway,” the President suggested.

The helicopter took-off. Within a few minutes, though, it was back on the ground. “Too risky,” was the determination. President Kennedy did not try to over-rule the pilot’s decision, which was irrevocable anyway. The skipper of an aircraft cannot be over-ruled by even his Commander-in-Chief in matters of air safety. Without demur, the President completed the trip by car.

Weather Information

Commercial airlines rely on the U.S. Weather Bureau and their own meteorologists for their information. Six different sources are checked for Presidential trips ꟷ the Air Force, Army, Navy, Federal Aviation Agency, the Weather Bureau and the major airline serving the route to be flown. At Andrews AFB where the Presidential jet is kept because the 6500 foot-long runways at Washington National Airport are too short for jet-plane safety, there is a closed-circuit TV network able to furnish instantaneous information and factual displays on weather and field conditions anywhere in the United States. For overseas trips, the weather is monitored for three days beforehand.

Aboard Presidential flights, all eventualities are anticipated. John, Jr., the President’s son, was still an infant when his father took office. The plane’s stewards were briefed on diaper-changing and baby-handling. At the same time they spent several days conferring with Rene Verdon, the White House’s French chef, discussing how the President likes his food.

Chow

In flight, the President is a light eater. Elaborate repasts are really not necessary, even on long flights, because of the jet’s speed. Meals aboard the plane are prepared by the stewards in an all-electric, all-steel galley, with a six-burner stove and an oversized refrigerator. For security, the stewards wear civilian clothes ꟷ for which they get special allowances ꟷ to help avoid recognition when they shop for their supplies in small, out-of-the-way stores. The clerks never know the food they are selling is for the President of the United States. No shop is ever used twice, and no one else touches the food from the time it is bought until it’s served. A project officer, known irreverently to the Presidential plane crew as the ”bag” man, is appointed by the Air Force for each Presidential trip. He provides the cash from a special fund for these purchases.

Presidential flight planning starts when one of the White House Secretaries ꟷ usually Kenneth O’Donnell, in charge of the Chief Executive’s appointments ꟷ learns the President is thinking of making a trip somewhere. Very few of these tenuous alerts actually resolve into flights. “For every trip made by the President, at least two or three others are planned,” reports Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh, the President’s Air Force aide, who is overall White House coordinator for Air Force One assignments. “We tell each other all the wild rumors. We try to anticipate.”

Notice

Advance notice that the President wants to fly somewhere ranges from several weeks to as short as 30 minutes. The plane’s crew is always ready to go anywhere. Their inoculation records are checked weekly. They have special telephones in their homes, linked to the White House switchboard. When they go out, even just to a movie, they tell the operator where they can be reached.

Unless the trip is to a “regular” destination ꟷ Cape Cod, Boston, West Palm Beach or New York City ꟷ the entire route is flown beforehand by the Presidential crew. Two weeks before President Kennedy began his three-capital visit to Europe in 1961, Colonel Swindal ꟷ even though he has flown the Atlantic more than 150 times and has landed often at each of the airports on the proposed trip ꟷ made a new survey of the route. Secret Service agents, White House communications experts, secretaries to make advance arrangements, and Air Force specialists to set up refueling and parking plans, accompanied this “dry run.”

Between Presidential trips, or when not assigned to flying other top-level or foreign officials (the Vice-President, incidentally, is never allowed to fly aboard the same plane with the President), the crew of Air Force One drills constantly, sharpening their precision, preparing for emergencies they hope will never occur. Periodically, the entire crew goes to a commercial airline school to check out on a jet simulator for emergency procedures ꟷ fires, pressure failures and other things which cannot safely be accomplished aboard Air Force One itself.

Minor Mishaps

Such preparation pays off, for there have been minor mishaps on Presidential flights. Once, landing at Otis Air Force Base, smoke belched from an overheated brake lining. Fire trucks rushed up, but the smoke died to a wisp. Again, in a propeller-driven DC-6, the President touched down at Washington National Airport to a serenade of sirens as fire trucks sped to precautionary stations after the pilot radioed he was low on hydraulic fluid used for breaking. The landing, though, was uneventful. On another occasion, a tire blew out upon landing at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island. In all these instances, the President stepped from the plane unruffled.

Indifferent

President Kennedy almost never bothers with the details of a flight. When aloft he seldom visits the cockpit, in contrast to Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, who loved to occupy the co-pilot’s seat for hours on end. “He’s never relaxed,” reports Master Sergeant Joseph Ayers, one of the enlisted Air Force stewards aboard. “He’s always working, always serious. Usually the only questions he asks are ‘What’s the wind?’ or ‘How fast are we going?’ “

“He likes to go all-out,” adds Colonel Swindal.

Like any passenger aboard a commercial plane, President Kennedy has to fasten his seat belt for take-offs and landings. He sits next to a window, a conference table in front of him. A silver bowl and a twin pen set ꟷ gifts from the crew ꟷ rest on the table, along with reports and papers. At the front of the compartment, a four-by-four-foot screen can be pulled down for the showing of sound movies. Maps, for briefings, can also be lowered from the ceiling. A tape recorder is stocked with a collection of hi-fi music, mostly semi-classical.

The helicopters in which the President is flown are provided by the Navy and the Army; the Navy is in charge of the operations. They are used most frequently for the trip between the White House and Andrews AFB, where they land just 60 feet away from the door of the Presidential jet. The Secret Service men who accompany the President on his helicopter hops, incidentally, are all trained pilots, ready to take over the controls if something happens to the regular flight commander.

Exact figures on the operating cost of Air Force One are impossible to obtain ꟷ for one thing, costs are split among many government departments. It is loosely estimated, however, that it costs $6000 to transport, house and feed the President’s entourage for one three-day trip to Palm Beach.

Expensive? Yes, but the Presidential jet does help the Chief Executive to crowd more work into an already crowded schedule. For all its luxury, Air Force One to the President of the United States, is just another office, where an hour’s flight is usually just an hour’s work.

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