The Boeing VC-137B Stratoliner is a modified version of the Boeing 707 commercial intercontinental airliner and the first jet aircraft designed exclusively for presidential use. For almost 30 years it served as the presidential aircraft, commonly known as "Air Force One." Today, the president's aircraft is the VC-25A, a heavily modified Boeing 747-200 derivative.
On 10 October 1962, the first VC-137B (#26000) purchased for use as "Air Force One" arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, MD. When SAM 26000, as it is commonly known (SAM stands for Special Air Missions), entered service, it was capable of traveling farther and faster than any other executive aircraft in the Air Force fleet. It could also operate from much shorter runways.
President Kennedy flew on 26000 for the first time in November 1962, when he and the first lady attended Eleanor Roosevelt's funeral in New York. In June, Kennedy used the aircraft when he flew to Ireland and Germany, where he made his famous "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech. A month earlier, while taking a U.S. delegation to Moscow, 26000 broke 30 speed records, including the fastest nonstop flight between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Convinced that the new aircraft needed a distinctive look, President Kennedy commissioned noted designer Raymond Loewy to come up with a new design. The result was a striking blue and white color scheme that has more or less carried to this day. "United States of America" was emblazoned on the side of the fuselage, an American flag was painted on the tail, and because this would be the president's aircraft, a presidential seal was added on both sides of the nose.
SAM 26000 is perhaps the most widely known and most historically significant presidential aircraft. It returned President Kennedy's body to Washington, D.C. following his assassination on 22 November 1963. Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office as the 36th president on board the aircraft at Love Field in Dallas. This fateful aircraft also was used to return President Johnson's body to Texas following his state funeral on 24 January 1973. In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon made historic visits aboard 26000 to the People's Republic of China in February and to the Soviet Union in May.
The VC-137B body is identical to that of the Boeing 707, but has different interior furnishings and electronic equipment. The passenger cabin is divided into three sections:
- The forward section has a communications center, galley, lavatory and an eight-seat compartment.
- The center section is an airborne headquarters with conference tables, swivel chairs, a projection screen for films and two convertible sofa-bunks.
- The rear section of the cabin contains double reclining passenger seats, tables, a galley, two lavatories, and closets. Partitions may be placed throughout the cabin for added privacy.
President Johnson reconfigured the interior of 26000. Additional seals were added, and the seats were reversed to face the rear of the aircraft toward the president's compartment. Johnson liked to be able to keep an eye on his passengers, and the cherry wood partitions that separated the passengers from the stateroom were replaced with clear plastic dividers. He also had a chair and large desk installed that could raise or lower at the press of a button. President Johnson used 26000 extensively on travels back and forth between Washington and his Texas ranch. He was also a world traveler and used the aircraft for his flights to Vietnam at the height of the war.
President Nixon was in office less than a month when he made his first trip abroad on 26000, to Vietnam. However, shortly after he took office, 26000 went back to the Boeing factory for its first major overhaul. The aircraft was stripped to its metal shell from cockpit to tail. While engineers tested the aircraft's structure and systems, the interior layout was redesigned. The private quarters of the president were moved to the area forward of the wings, the most quiet and stable section of the aircraft. A staff compartment was built in the rear of 26000. One feature of 26000, which did not carry over into the Nixon administration, was the on-board taping system. By orders of the president, the system that recorded all incoming and outgoing calls on 26000 was removed.
In December 1972, SAM 26000 was assigned the role of backup presidential aircraft. The aircraft that replaced it as the primary presidential plane (#27000) was another Boeing 707 designated as VC-137C. SAM 26000 continued to serve in the presidential fleet through four other presidents and even had a role in transition to the VC-25As the president flies today. When state-of-the-art communications systems for the new aircraft were being developed, they were first tested on 26000.
SAM 26000 left the presidential fleet in 1990, but continued to make history serving America's leaders. Vice presidents, secretaries of state and defense, and congressional delegations used 26000 extensively throughout the 1990s. Also, whenever the VC-25As were at Boeing for scheduled maintenance or heavy inspections, 26000 reassumed its role as presidential backup.
The VC-137 fleet of aircraft have 1950s airframe technology that do not comply with FAA Stage 3 restrictions. These aircraft are very expensive to fly, support, and maintain. Therefore, the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews AFB, MD has received four new Boeing 757-200 aircraft, designated C-32A, to replace the aging and costly VC-137 fleet. In 1998, two 12-seat Gulfstream V business jets, designated C-37A, were added to the SAM fleet.
SAM 26000 served with pride and dependability for 36 years and takes into retirement a rich, honorable record of protecting America's interests both in good times and bad. This remarkable aircraft is currently on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH.
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