Modified Boeing 747 becomes the new Air Force One on August 23, 1990.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 6/01/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21244

On August 23, 1990, a modified Boeing 747 replaces aging 707s as the official aircraft of America's presidents. Although Air Force One is used as the call sign for any aircraft carrying the president, the name has become most closely associated with planes that are specifically built for presidential use. Beginning in 1962, the first two of these craft, both modified Boeing 707s, were used President John F. Kennedy. They featured a livery designed by Raymond Loewy that is still in use today (2021). Almost three decades later, the Air Force replaced the obsolete 707s with the first of two modified Boeing 747s.

Earlier Presidential Planes

In 1943 Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) became the first president to fly while in office when a Pan Am Boeing 314 Clipper carried him and his staff to the Casablanca Conference in Morocco. He later flew aboard a modified Douglas C-54 Skymaster to the Yalta Conference in 1945. After Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) became president upon Roosevelt's death that year, he replaced the C-54 with a modified Douglas C-118 Liftmaster, which he named Independence after his hometown in Missouri.

Under Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1953), four aircraft were used for presidential service, including two Lockheed C-121 Constellations, christened Columbine II and Columbine III in honor of the state flower of Colorado, where Mamie Eisenhower (1896-1979) grew up. In 1953, during a flight to Florida, Columbine II -- which had the call sign Air Force 8510 -- came into the same air space as Eastern Airlines 8610. From that point on it was required that any plane carrying the president must use the call sign Air Force One.

After the jet age began near the end of Eisenhower's second term, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (1888-1959) noted that it was no longer dignified for the president to fly in a propeller-driven aircraft, especially after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) and other Soviet officials began flying aboard a jet-powered Tupelov TU-114. The Air Force added three modified Boeing 707s to its fleet for presidential use.

The Jet Age Arrives

In October 1962, the first jet specifically built for presidential use entered service. Given the tail number SAM (Special Air Missions) 26000, the jet was a modified Boeing 707. Its livery was created by noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy (1893-1986), who chose blue and white hues overlaid with large block letters that read THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Presidential seals appear on either side near the nose, and an American flag was painted on both sides of the tail. Loewy's design is still used by modern versions of the presidential plane.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) used the plane for the first time when he flew to Eleanor Roosevelt's funeral in November 1962. Later he flew aboard it to Ireland and Germany, and on November 22, 1963, it carried him on his fateful trip to Dallas, Texas. Later that day, Air Force One carried his coffin home, and was the site of the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973).

In 1972 SAM 26000 was replaced by a similar plane bearing the tail number SAM 27000, but remained in use as a backup. SAM 27000 served the next seven presidents -- it carried Richard Nixon (1913-1994) to China, flew Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) over the devastation of the Mount St. Helens eruption, and transported Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) to summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev (b.1931).

A Bigger Jet

By the time President Reagan began his second term in 1985, the two 1960s-era jets were starting to show their age. Based on recommendations from the military and Secret Service, Reagan announced in 1985 that the Air Force intended to buy two wide-body jets at a cost of $300-400 million. Both planes were required to fly 6,000 miles without refueling, and would have state-of-the-art communications systems that could be easily upgraded as technologies changed.

Boeing and McDonnell Douglas were the only aircraft manufacturers to submit proposals, with the Boeing 747 and DC-10 respectively. On June 5, 1986, Boeing was chosen to receive the contract, pending congressional approval. Later that year, fixed-price contracts were awarded totaling more than $250 million for two uniquely configured 747s, one of which would serve as the backup plane when the other was being serviced.

Work began at the Boeing Everett plant, with delivery of the first plane planned for 1988, just before Reagan left office. Nancy Reagan helped design the interior d├ęcor, which had a style reminiscent of the American Southwest. But as work progressed on the technical aspects of the plane, it became apparent that Reagan would never fly on board the jet while he was president.

Delayed Delivery

In the summer of 1988 Boeing informed the Department of Defense that the plane was behind schedule, due in part to the complexity of installing wiring for communications gear. The new plane required 1,260,000 feet of wiring, compared to 585,000 feet of wiring in a normal 747. Another issue involved compliance with new FAA rules regarding fire prevention.

Cost overruns were high, and in November 1989 the Air Force estimated that Boeing was $385 million over budget. Since it was a fixed-price contract, this meant that Boeing would have to absorb any costs above the contract amount, and this at a time when the company was already posting losses in its military-transport and missile divisions. The Air Force blamed Boeing for any delays, claiming that the company underbid the contract.

The new Air Force One wasn't delivered to the government until seven months after George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) was sworn in as president. On August 23, 1990, after final touches were made to the plane at Boeing's Wichita plant, the specially built 747 -- now with tail number 28000 -- was flown to Andrews Air Force Base by Col. Robert Barr (b. 1947), the president's pilot. The second 747 -- tail number 29000 -- was delivered the following spring.

State of the Art

The new Air Force One was far more spacious than its Boeing 707 predecessor and could carry 70 passengers, compared to the 707's 46. The older plane had 1,460 square feet of space on the main deck, but the new plane had 3,530 square feet, with additional space for baggage, food storage, and communications gear on the lower deck.

The presidential living quarters had a lounge, a bedroom with two large fold-down beds, a closet, and a bathroom that included a shower. Senior staff cabins also contained pull-down beds. The large executive staff room could be used for conferences and could also be converted to a medical facility in case of emergencies. Junior staff and press seating were located in the aft and had multiple televisions and VCRs for passengers' use.

The jet had all the latest technology and could be used as a mobile command center in case of a nuclear attack. It had anti-aircraft missile countermeasures, infrared jammers, and all the wiring was shielded from a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP.) Other advanced defensive features of the new Air Force One were classified for security reasons.

The Next Air Force One

In 2015 the Air Force announced that due to rapidly changing technology, a new version of Air Force One was needed to replace the Reagan-era planes. The Air Force noted that the Boeing 747-8 was the only aircraft manufactured in the United States that could meet its requirements. It was also stipulated that a contract would be awarded only if Boeing could come up with a reasonable price, which the Air Force estimated would be around $3.2 billion.

On December 2, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump (b. 1946) sent out an angry tweet claiming that costs were "out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!" (Twitter.com.) Boeing's stock tumbled, and state lawmakers expressed their concerns over Trump's unsubstantiated outburst. Two years later, Trump struck a $3.9 billion deal with Boeing for the new Air Force One, which the White House claimed would save taxpayers $1.4 billion.

Also in 2018, Trump released a new design for Air Force One's livery that would do away with Raymond Loewy's iconic color scheme and replace it with a palate of flat red, white and dark blue colors that looked surprisingly like an inverted version of the livery used on Trump's personal jet. In 2021, when asked if President Joe Biden (b. 1942) would use Trump's design, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki (b. 1978) stated, "I can confirm for you here the president has not spent a moment thinking about the color scheme of Air Force One" (Defense News).


Sources:

"Boeing, Douglas to Vie to Build Presidential Plane," The Seattle Times, October 6, 1985, p. D1; "Reagan Wants $300 Million for Presidential Jets," Ibid., December 15 , 1985, p. A2; "Boeing Gets Presidential Aircraft Job," Ibid., June 5 , 1986, p. A1; "Boeing Late on Air Force One Delivery," Ibid., July 30 , 1988, p. D9; "White House in the Sky," Ibid., September 25 , 1988, p. D1; "Jets Won't be Ready to Give Reagan a Ride," Ibid., October 4 , 1988, p. C3; "The Wait Continues; Air Force One Delivery to be Delayed," Ibid., June 24 , 1989, p. B6; "Boeing Blindsided As Trump Slams Air Force One Costs," Ibid., December 7 , 2016, p. A1; "Talks Reach an Accord on $3.9B Air Force One," Ibid., February 28 , 2018, p. A1; "Boeing Company Finally Hands Over Air Force One to the Government," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 24, 1990, p. C1; "New Presidential Plane is Far From Bush-League," Ibid., September 9, 1990, p. A10; "State Lawmakers Hit Trump for 'Unsubstantiated' Air Force One Tweet" Seattle Post Intelligencer, December 6, 2016, (https://www.seattlepi.com); "Reagan Makes First, Last Flight in Jet He Ordered," June 10, 2004, United States Air Force website accessed May 30, 2021 (https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/136728/reagan-makes-first-last-flight-in-jet-he-ordered/); "AF Identifies Boeing 747-8 Platform for Next Air Force One," January 28, 2015, United States Air Force website accessed May 30, 2021 (https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/562748/af-identifies-boeing-747-8-platform-for-next-air-force-one/); "With New Air Force One Planes Still Bare, Biden Will Choose Between the Jet's Classic Livery or a Fresh Paint Scheme," January 25, 2021, Defense News website accessed May 30, 2021 (https://www.defensenews.com/air/2021/01/25/with-new-air-force-one-planes-still-bare-it-will-be-up-to-biden-to-choose-between-the-jets-classic-livery-or-a-fresh-paint-scheme/).


Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You