Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Plight of the First Air Force One

4/11 update: The Archive just acquired a second photo of 8610, which has been added to the article below.
3/27 update: Looks like there's hope after all! Be sure to read the addendum at the end of the article.

Our story starts like so many others around here...a little snapshot in a booth at an antique mall for a buck. A closer look showing that this might be something a bit more special, and some preliminary research that reveals a very cool story that's very relevant to today!

This photo is dated November, 1953 by the processing lab.

In the store, I showed this to my brother, and he noted the honor guard and the platform. "Must be someone important," was his comment. It occurred to me that President Eisenhower had used Connies as his presidential aircraft. So I paid the buck. The photo isn't as clear as I'd wish, but it's clear enough to make out the tail number, 8610 (aka 48-610), the very first Air Force One, and clear enough to see a man in black standing at the top of the stairs waving his hat to the crowd...presumably this is Ike.

The plane has a remarkable story (and I find it ironic that it's probable that this snapshot was taken by someone capturing the moment of Ike's arrival, with little or no interest in imaging the airplane itself), with the Air Force One aspect just a part of the story...and this is a story that's continuing today.

The plane was born as a Plain-Jane Lockheed C-121A Constellation (model L-749-79-36, c/n 749-2602), one of a lot of nine ordered in 1948. After rolling off the assembly line in Burbank, Lockheed bailed it from the Air Force to be used as a company transport in Alaska for a while, before finally being delivered to the Air Force in 1950, when it was converted to VIP configuration (VC-121A-LO) for use by Eisenhower, who named it Columbine II  (replacing a sister VC-121A, the original Columbine).

Some readers may take umbrage at my title for this post, protesting that there were earlier Presidential aircraft, and indeed they would be right. But this was the first "Air Force One". As most will recall, that title is not given to a specific airplane, it's a radio call sign used for any plane which POTUS is flying aboard. But it wasn't always so. Before 1953, the flight would simply used the plane's tail number, so for Columbine II, the call sign would be Air Force 8610. And this is exactly what happened on one day in 1953 when the Connie, with Ike onboard, was flying over New York. Unfortunately, at that moment also flying over New York was Eastern Airlines Flight 8610, and due to confusion induced by the similar call signs, the two planes almost collided. Eisenhower's pilot, Col. Billy Draper, is credited with finding the solution to the problem, coining the phrase "Air Force One" for use when the President was on board, and the tradition stuck (here's a great bio on Draper). Besides Eisenhower, a whole litany of other VIPs, including Queen Elizabeth II and Richard Nixon, flew on board Columbine II.

Columbine II, which was based on the civilian Constellation airliner, was replaced in November 1954 with Columbine III (VC-121E, 53-7885), which was based on the larger Lockheed 1049 Super Constellation. Stripped of its name and fame, 48-610 was leased by the Air Force to Pan American Airways and given the civilian registration N9907F for a short time, and then transferred to the Government of Thailand. It was returned to the USAF in June 1955, and the service continued to operate it as a normal airlifter until retiring the old gal to Davis-Monthan AFB in April, 1968.

Sometime around 1970, Christler Flying Service purchased several old Air Force Connies out of the boneyard, with the intent of turning them into large pest spraying aircraft. Unfortunately, 48-610 was in pretty rough shape, and Christler decided to simply use it as a source of spares to support the rest of their fleet. Enter the historians of the Smithsonian, who were researching the early presidential aircraft: they contacted Christler, who had no idea of the unique story behind their derelict, which they were getting ready to scrap. That changed everything, and funds were raised and the old gal was refurbished and actually returned to the air in 1990. The plane was flown to Abilene, Kansas, home of the Dwight D. Eisnhower Presidential Library and Museum for Ike's centennial. With fame rediscovered, Christler put the plane up for sale at auction, expecting that it would be picked up by a museum. It wasn't, and in 2005, she was flown back to Marana, Arizona, where she sits to this day. Ten years have taken a drastic toll on the plane and she is quite literally rotting away.

A logical place for the plane to be preserved is in Eisenhower's home state of Kansas, but all the big museums, and even Ike's presidential library, simply down have any desire to do anything to save Columbine II. Recently, the plight of Columbine II has been publicized through social media, as efforts continue to find a way to preserve this unique piece of history; the effort even has a Facebook page. Every seems to think that it's a great idea, at least until the subject of money comes up, at which point the subject politely gets changed. So in a way, the plane itself is a bit like our found photo: simply discarded as forgotten and irrelevent.

There are two short documentaries about the plight of Columbine II, and I would recommend both, as they have a lot of great footage and interviews from key players:

There's an interesting aside to this story, as well. As I mentioned, Columbine II was one of a lot of nine Connies which the Air Force bought in 1948, and of the eight others, five of them have either survived or had a story of their own. Here's a quick overview:

48-609: After a two-decade Air Force career, 609 was retired to Davis-Monthan, and then was part of the group purchased by Christler. After almost a decade and a half doing spray work in both the US and Canada, the plane was purchased by none other than John Travolta, who re-registered it as N494TW, but ended up putting it in storage. It was then sold to aerospace entreprenieur Vern Raburn in 1991, who put the Connie through an extensive restoration before it was then sent to South Korea, where it is part of the permanent collection of the Korean Airlines Museum in 2005.

48-612: Following its Air Force service, 612 was also purchased by Christler in 1970, and then by Raburn in 1993, who oversaw its restoration. The plane then went to the Netherlands, where it is registered as PH-LDF.

48-613: This was General MacArthur's VIP transport, and he named it Bataan. Upon retirement in 1966, the aircraft was transferred to NASA, who used it as a transport for the Apollo program, flying between the west coast, Houston and Florida. When NASA no longer had need of it, 613 ended up at the Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, before being picked up by Planes of Fame at Valle, Arizona.

48-614: This was the original Columbine, assigned to Eisenhower while he was still an active duty Army General. It is currently part of the collection of the Pima Air Museum.

48-615: Named Dewdrop, this was General Vandenberg's ride. After the Air Force, it was another one of Christler's spray birds. In 1976 she became a movie star, featured in the film MacArthur. Sadly, she then was turned into a freighter and came to an untimely end while flying for the Dominican carrier Aerolineas Argo. While on approach to Harry Truman Airport in St. Thomas, VI during a heavy rainstorm on October 26, 1981, she crashed into the sea; the three crewmembers were killed, but the two passengers onboard survived. The plane sank in 150 feet of water.

3/27/15 update!
After posting, it came to light from a user on Reddit that Karl Stoltzfus and his Dynamic Aviation, along with Scott Glover and the Mid America Flight Museum are currently evaluating Columbine II for purchase and restoration, with a final decision to be announced April 28th. There are three online articles covering this development, and as I learn more, I'll post more updates here.

No comments:

Post a Comment