Note: Since this article was first written, I have visited SAM 26000 two more times and have extensively photographed and filmed the aircraft, including both of the cargo holds underneath the plane. This is relevant because over the years there has been much discussion of whether the construction of Air Force One would have allowed for any body alteration to occur on the return flight from Dallas, Texas to Washington, D.C. on November 22, 1963, following the assassination of President Kennedy.
On Wednesday, October 20, 1999, I visited the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, outside of Dayton, Ohio. After entering the main museum, I learned that the presidential aircraft and experimental aircraft are housed in a separate hanger facility located on the old Wright Field flight line, about a mile away from the main museum. A special pass is required to gain access, but there is no charge to visit, and you are allowed to take as many pictures as you like and stay as long as you like. [NOTE: Since September 11, 2001 and increased security at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, it is no longer possible to drive your personal vehicle over to the Presidential Hanger. Instead, you are required to ride a special shuttle bus from the main museum over to the hanger and then return via the same method.]
The Boeing VC-137C, designated as SAM 26000, first used by President John F. Kennedy as Air Force One, sits housed in a very non-descript, ordinary-looking hanger. The Presidential Hanger is home to nine presidential aircraft, including the Douglas VC-118 Independence, used by Harry Truman and named for his home in Independence, Missouri. President Dwight Eisenhower’s plane, the Columbine III, also resides here. It was christened by Mrs. Eisenhower in November, 1954, and named after the flower of the State of Colorado. Also included in the presidential aircraft collection is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s C-54, the Sacred Cow, America’s first official presidential aircraft.
Currently, the Presidential seal is missing from both sides of the outside fuselage of SAM 26000, and the plane is painted somewhat differently from how it looked in 1963. In addition, the ventral fin–the rear stabilizer under the tail–is gone, having been removed in 1968 when the plane underwent an extensive refit, but the rivet hole marks are still visible in the airplane’s skin.
When SAM 26000 was first delivered to Wright Patterson Air Force Base on May 20, 1998, it was parked on the tarmac outside the hanger, where several thousand people flocked to tour the plane. The Air Force Museum had to secure special permission from Wright Patterson Air Force Base to allow the plane to land on the old Wright Patterson flight line, because this special runway was needed to get the plane down safely.
According to information personnel stationed in the hanger, in June, 1998, SAM 26000 was closed to the public. Air Force workers spent 16-hour days for approximately a month draining the oil from the engines, fuel from the tanks, and generally cleaning the plane. In addition, they installed heavy clear plastic “walls” on each side of the aisle inside the plane, to preserve the interior, thus making the walkway through the airplane only 17” wide.
Over time and different Presidential administrations, the interior configuration of the compartment walls and seating changed from JFK’s time. Originally, the restoration department at Wright Patterson was debating restoring the plane to how it looked when JFK used the plane. However, according to Dr. Jeffrey Underwood, Presidential Aircraft Historian at the Air Force Museum, they have decided to leave the plane in its current condition, as it is historically accurate as to how it was received at the U.S. Air Force Museum in 1998.
At the bottom of the front of the plane is a large placard-type board, describing the particulars of SAM 26000, including detailing some of the famous passengers who have flown aboard her during her service. In addition, there is a 17” wide template at the bottom of the steps leading to the front door of the aircraft that people must be able to pass through in order to tour the plane.
The self-guided tour of the plane starts at the front cabin door, where people board airplanes today. The cockpit doorway is sealed shut with a clear plastic wall, but you can easily see all of the controls, including both the Flight Engineer’s and Navigators stations, plus the Observer’s Seat behind the pilot’s seat. Immediately behind the forward door on the port side is a highly-complex 2-person communications console which kept the airplane in constant contact with the rest of the world. Next come several rows of seats, then the aisle diverts along the port-side wall of the plane because the presidential cabins run alongside the starboard wall, over the wings.
The first presidential cabin served as the President’s office and conference room. There is a table with a chair on either side of it, plus a fold-out couch along the interior cabin wall. A small bathroom is attached to this room as well. A door at the rear of this compartment passes into the presidential lounge, where there are a series of seats ringing the walls. Over the doorway is one of the digital clocks originally installed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was fascinated by the different stages of daily activity at any given moment in the various time zones around the world. He always wanted to know the time of day at his eventual destination, in Washington, DC, and in the time zone he was then flying through. The Bulova Watch Company donated their services and crafted the special clocks which were installed throughout the plane.
Further back along the aisle, immediately behind the presidential lounge, there is a placard attached to one of the walls depicting LBJ being sworn in on November 22, 1963, and explaining that you are now standing in the area where that event took place. This area is currently set up with rows of seats on both sides of the aisle; this was where the staff sat in flight, and there is a copier machine, two desks and a typewriter in this area.
Continuing backward, more seats are on both sides of the aisle, and a large galley is on the starboard side of the plane. When JFK was president, this galley was farther back along the starboard cabin wall, and in fact, the area where Jackie Kennedy and JFK’s aides sat on the return trip is now partly occupied by this walk-in galley.
Another placard near the rear door explains how the last 2 rows of seats were removed to make room for JFK’s coffin on the return trip from Dallas, and there are still saw marks in one of the bulkheads that was cut to allow the coffin to be maneuvered into place. To exit the plane, you walk down a set of steps outside the rear door, where JFK’s coffin was off-loaded. It is most impressive to stand in that rear doorway and look over your left shoulder at the large tail soaring over your head and to see the large "26000" number and the U.S. Flag painted there.
Still visible also are the engraved plaques over the airphones hanging on the walls throughout the plane, which warned users that the phones were not secure communication devices.
Unfortunately, because of the number of other aircraft also parked in the hanger, and also because of SAM 26000’s size, it is impossible to get pictures of the plane without any other aircraft being in the picture as well. The information personnel said that a new, larger hanger is being built and will be open after 2002. When that is completed, SAM 26000 will be displayed without so many aircraft surrounding it.
The Presidential Aircraft and Experimental Aircraft hangers are open from 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., seven days a week; there is no charge for admission. For anyone who finds themselves in the Dayton, Ohio area, it is definitely worth the time to stop and tour SAM 26000, as well as the rest of the Air Force Museum.
The VC-137C was basically the Boeing 707-320B commercial intercontinental airliner. Beginning in 1962, SAM 26000’s primary Air Force mission was to furnish transportation for the President of the United States. In addition, U.S. cabinet members, heads of foreign governments and other executive and military leaders were afforded transportation. Principal differences between the Boeing 707-320B and the VC-137 were in electronic and communications equipment, berths, conference facilities, and other interior furnishings. The passenger cabin of the VC-137 was partitioned into three sections: a communications center, an airborne headquarters and a passenger compartment. Increased seating or cargo space could be made through simplified conversion. The last VC-137 (SAM 27000) was retired in 2001 and is scheduled to be on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California in the near future.
Currently, 2 VC-25A’s (the current Air Force One, specially-modified Boeing 747-200B's) and 4 C-32A's (the current Air Force Two, specially-modified Boeing 757's) are based at Andrews AFB, MD, and are used by MAC as carriers for top Government officials, along with several C-20's and C-37's, which are Gulfstream jets modified for the Air Force (President Bush uses these smaller jets when flying to his ranch in Texas). In addition, C40B and C40C models of the Boeing Business Jet (based on the Boeing 737 platform) have been added to the fleet to transport Cabinet officials and other high-ranking VIPs.
Primary Function: High priority personnel and cargo transport
Prime Contractor: The Boeing Company
Engine: Four Pratt & Whitney TF33 (JT3D-3) Turbofans
Thrust: 18,000 lbs. each
Top Speed: 530 mph
Range: 6,000+ miles
Ceiling: Above 43,000 feet
Crew: 7 or 8
Passengers: Maximum of 50
Wingspan: 145 feet 9 inches
Length: 152 feet 11 inches
Height: 42 feet 5 inches
Maximum Gross Takeoff Weight: 322,000 lbs, VC-137C
Note: On November 10, 1962, President and Mrs. Kennedy first used SAM 26000 for the 48-minute flight from Washington National Airport, Washington DC, to Stewart Air Force Base, New York, to attend the funeral of Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former First Lady of the United States of America.