Presidential Flight Before Air Force One

Library of Congress
Library of Congress / Library of Congress

They’ve been called “flying Oval Offices,” presently contain some of the world’s most high-tech missile defense systems, and have even starred in an action movie alongside Harrison Ford. Yet, contrary to popular belief, presidential airplanes have been around since 1933—26 years before the phrase “Air Force One” was first uttered.

Having previously become the first U.S. president to leave the country during his term (albeit by ship), Theodore Roosevelt broke new ground once again in Missouri’s Kinloch Airfield on October 11, 1910. A mere seven years after the Wright brothers had taken off at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, ex-president Roosevelt had unexpectedly accepted pilot Arch Hoxsey’s offer to ride in his plane while visiting the area. “You know I didn’t intend to do it,” he later told a reporter, “but when I saw the thing there, I could not resist it.”

Ultimately, it was the nation’s second President Roosevelt who became the first to take flight during his term in office. January 11, 1943 saw FDR simultaneously become the first president to leave the country in wartime, and the first since Lincoln to enter an active theater of war when he met with Winston Churchill in Casablanca, Morocco. However, by then his administration had already owned an aircraft for a decade: a model known as the “Douglas Dolphin Amphibian” had been built for Roosevelt in 1933, although no record exists confirming that our 32nd president ever actually used it.

For the subsequent Yalta Conference, FDR took off in a new plane nicknamed “The Sacred Cow” by White House reporters. Complete with a bedroom and telephone, it even included an elevator specially built to accommodate the president’s wheelchair. “The Sacred Cow” was subsequently inherited by Harry Truman who, in a 1945 trip to Olympia, Washington, embarked upon the first domestic flight in the history of the presidency.

Truman also employed “The Sacred Cow” for more nefarious purposes. According to biographer Matthew Algeo, whenever flying over Ohio—the home state of his chief political rival, Senator Robert Taft—he’d command the pilot to “activate the waste disposal system … the discharged fluids, of course, evaporated quickly in the cold, dry air outside. But it was Truman’s way of having a private joke at Taft’s expense.” Two years later, a new plane called “The Independence,” after the president’s hometown in Missouri, was commissioned and assembled, complete with the head of a bald eagle painted on its nose.

Like Truman (and unlike FDR), Dwight Eisenhower was fond of flight. His administration also saw the dawn of a new era in 1953 when a ride he’d been given by the Air Force happened to have the same call sign as a commercial flight. Nine years later, having been inspired by this embarrassing snafu, the military introduced the practice of referring to any plane the sitting president is currently riding in as “Air Force One,” a practice that’s continued to this day.