For the American people, Air Force One--the blue and silver Boeing 707 that carries the nation's chief executives--is a shiny symbol of the United States, one used for politics and diplomacy.
The 50-passenger, four-engine jet, from which a President can wage war or chat with someone on the other side of the world, has been chronicled in print and now is the topic of a excellent PBS special (airing Friday at 9 p.m. on KCET Channel 28).
"Air Force One: The Planes and the Presidents" is a well-researched look at presidential flight--from Teddy Roosevelt's out-of-office jaunt on a Wright Flyer to Ronald Reagan's use of the 12-year-old jet, known only as "SAM 27000" when no President is aboard.
In between comes a look at Air Force One's role in history, narrated by actor-aviator Jimmy Stewart and featuring interviews with Presidents, pilots and others involved in presidential aviation.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first President to make use of a plane while in office. His secret trip to Casablanca to meet with Churchill covered 17,000 miles and took 90 hours round trip in Pan Am's Boeing 314 flying boats. Today it's 14 hours round trip in a 707.
The first aircraft officially designated for presidential use--"Guess Where II," an Army C-87A--was never used by Roosevelt. He did use its successor, a DC-4 irreverently called the "Sacred Cow" by reporters. Truman used it until he got a Douglas DC-6, named "Independence" after his hometown. Eisenhower, himself a pilot, used Lockheed Constellations named "Columbine II" and "Columbine III."
The Air Force took delivery on three 707s, with the noses and tails painted Day-Glo orange, just before the end of Eisenhower's term, and one designated by the tail number 26000 became John F. Kennedy's primary jet.
That plane had perhaps the most painful role in presidential flying history. While aboard that plane on the flight to Dallas Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy ordered the bulletproof top left off his limousine. On that same plane later in the day, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President after Kennedy's assassination. In the hold lay Kennedy's body.
At Jacqueline Kennedy's request the plane--carrying the now-familiar blue paint job--flew up the Potomac past Kennedy's grave in a final salute at his funeral. The same plane 10 years later carried Johnson's body back to Texas following a state funeral in Washington.
The film--the work of Toledo film maker Elliott Sluhan and underwritten by the Boeing Co., the Personal Enterprise Foundation Inc. and Sluhan's firm--is based largely on a book on Air Force One by former Presidential Press Secretary Jerry terHorst and former Air Force One pilot Ralph Albertaze.
Air Force One--described in the film by UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas as "one of the things they really hate to give up"--actually is any Air Force aircraft a President happens to be using.
The presidential aircraft once was known to air traffic controllers only by its tail number. However, confusion one day with an Eastern flight prompted Eisenhower pilot Bill Draper to conclude a distinctive call sign was needed when the President was aboard. "Air Force One" was the result.
Among the other bits of Air Force One history in this production:
--Harry Truman turning the tables on reporters, landing before the press plane and waiting to interview reporters as they came down the stairs of the follow-up plane.
--Richard Nixon's flight to retirement in 1974, when the plane switched from "Air Force One" to "SAM 27000" over the middle of the country.
--Nervous Mamie Eisenhower's notes to the pilot pointing out thunderclouds and asking if the pilot had seen them.
--Truman's buzzing the White House, while his wife and daughter stood on the roof.
"It's kind of your private turf," Reagan said of the jet. " . . . It's a better office than any I have. I can get more done on this plane," he added, saying he uses much of the time to answer letters he wants to take care of personally.
"When you're abroad in a strange land and catch sight of Air Force One, it's like hearing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and your chest swells a little with pride," he said.