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Air Force One a moving artifact then and now


President John F. Kennedy was the first to use Air Force One, displayed at the U.S. Air Force museum in Dayton.


DAYTON — Air Force One drops from a sky the same color blue as its distinctive stripe and lands at Love Field in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

The rear door opens. President John F. Kennedy, handsome and tanned, and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, radiant in a pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, walk into bright day and a dark destiny. In less than an hour, the president would be dead.

Air Force One’s arrival in Dallas and grief-stricken departure on Nov. 22, 1963, following President Kennedy’s assassination are the bookends of that day’s tragic events. As such, the plane, literally and figuratively, became a moving historical artifact.

Not only did the aircraft bring JFK to Dallas, it was the scene of the swearing-in of Lyndon B. Johnson as the nation’s 36th president and it transported the new president, the slain president, and a blood-soaked Jackie Kennedy back to Washington.

“[Air Force One] was the most secure place they knew,” said Jeffery Underwood, historian for the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton. “No one knew what was happening. We all forget this was the height of the Cold War. We forget how dangerous everything was.”

The plane hasn’t flown since 1998 but continues to serve the country as an artifact, part of the national museum’s Presidential Gallery hangar in a restricted area of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. There are limited public tours of the aircraft and other presidential planes that preceded it.

While the plane ultimately served seven other presidents, government officials, and foreign dignitaries, it is most associated with Mr. Kennedy because he was the first to use it.

Before the aircraft entered Air Force service in October, 1962, presidents were transported in mostly undistinguished military transports. But with a new Boeing 707 being designed specifically for presidential use, the stylish and savvy Mrs. Kennedy saw an opportunity to create a memorable, sophisticated, modern image for the president’s travels.

She enlisted industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

Mr. Loewy used striking hues of blue, white, and silver, and emblazoned the plane with the presidential seal near the front and a large American flag on the tail. “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” was imprinted in large letters along the fuselage.

So distinctive, stylish, and powerful was Mr. Loewy’s design that it has been used on every subsequent Air Force One, even the 747s in use today.

The interior has changed — the president’s private suite and stateroom, originally in the rear, was moved forward of the engines in an overhaul during the Nixon administration. Tourists can see into the cockpit, the communications center, and the private presidential suite and state room, passenger seating seats, work areas, and galleys.

Its two historic spots bring chills. First is the area where Mr. Johnson took the oath of office.

Because of changes in the plane’s interior, the area is only as wide as an aisle now but it wasn’t big to begin with — only 16 square feet that were packed by 27 onlookers — staffers, congressmen, Secret Service agents, Air Force One crew.

A little farther back, near the rear door, is where President Kennedy’s casket was placed for the return to Washington. The casket was too large to bring into the cabin, but putting it in the cargo hold was rejected out of hand. To make room for it in the cabin, crew members cut out a piece of bulkhead and removed four seats.

“Jackie Kennedy sat right here near the casket for the ride back to Washington,” said Mr. Underwood, who admitted to still being moved by the tragic history despite countless tours he’s conducted.

“The place tells so many stories and evokes so many emotions for so many people.”

Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Michael A. Fuoco is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: or 412-263-1968.

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