Presidential Plane Heads For History This Air Force One Served Every President Since Kennedy. A Museum Is Next.

Posted: May 20, 1998

ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. — The familiar blue and white fuselage with the words painted boldly for the world to see - United States of America - still glistens in the sun the way it did the day President John F. Kennedy first boarded it in 1962.

The leather swivel chairs in the state room still beckon, the communications gear still stands ready to link the VIP passenger to any point on the globe.

But underneath, the modified 707 that served as Air Force One for presidents from Kennedy to Clinton, is very, very old. Yesterday, it left its home for good, flying to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio; today, it will make its last flight ever, a 10-minute hop to the nearby Air Force Museum, where it will be put on display.

``When they retire that plane, they retire a piece of history,'' said Jerald terHorst, former press secretary to President Gerald Ford and author of a book on Air Force One, The Flying White House.

First used by Kennedy in November 1962 to attend the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt, the plane in recent years served only as a backup for the president, who since 1990 has had the use of two identical 747s. It was last used by President Clinton on Jan. 28 of this year when a wheel of his newer 707 got stuck in the mud on a runway in Illinois.

In its day, the plane with the tail number 26000 was a symbol of the power and the glamour of the presidency when that power seemed greater and that glamour was unsullied by scandal.

It carried Kennedy to Berlin in June 1963 to defy the Soviets with his ``Ich Bin Ein Berliner'' speech. It carried him as well to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and then carried his body home that afternoon. With window shades drawn to guard against snipers, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president aboard it. Ten years later, it would also carry Johnson's body home to Texas after a state funeral in Washington.

It took Henry Kissinger to Paris for secret negotiations to end the Vietnam War. It took Richard Nixon on his groundbreaking trip to China in 1972. And it took former Presidents Nixon, Ford and Jimmy Carter to Egypt in 1981 for President Anwar Sadat's funeral.

``It was one of the best airplanes to ever come off the production line,'' said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Joe Chappell, the chief engineer who was with the plane from its delivery in 1962 to his retirement in 1980.

It also was the first jet designed and built specifically for the president. It included state-of-the-art communications gear that could link Kennedy with any spot on the planet - most important, U.S. nuclear forces at the height of the Cold War. It had a state room with chairs and twin beds at the rear.

It was probably the safest plane in the sky, stripped down to bare metal every six months, and every nut and bolt checked, Chappell said.

It was fast. In May 1963, it broke 30 speed records while carrying a U.S. delegation to Moscow.

And it was beautiful. Until then, presidents' planes were standard military design. Dwight Eisenhower's had an orange fuselage. The White House invited designers to submit recommendations, and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy picked the elegant blue-and-white design that is still used today.

The plane was a flying office for presidents, a respite where they could do business or relax. But more than that, it was one of the most recognizable symbols of the office.

``Whenever you saw that airplane, it symbolized the presidency and the United States of America,'' terHorst said.

``Nobody ever had one before this plane. Now every leader in the world worth his salt has one or wants one.''

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