A Historic Look at the President’s Airplane on Presidents’ Day

February 15, 2021

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first U.S. President known to fly in an aircraft while in office.  The president’s first journey via aircraft began at 10 p.m. on January 9, 1943 on a train – the president took a train from Washington, DC’s Union Station to Miami.  In Florida, President Roosevelt boarded his plane for the first official presidential flight.  The plane was a Boeing model 314 Clipper aircraft named the Dixie Clipper.

President Roosevelt’s historic flight departed from Miami at 6 a.m. on January 10, 1943 with a destination of Casablanca in Morocco.  The flight was a war secret, the president flew across the Atlantic Ocean to North Africa to meet with Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and French General Charles de Gaulle to discuss the Allies’ World War II strategy.

Typical of aircraft of that time, the Dixie Clipper did not have the range to make the trip non-stop across the Atlantic from Miami.  The president and his entourage made stops in Trinidad, Brazil and Bathurst in Gambia.  While in Bathurst the Army recommended that the president switch planes to a C-54 Army transport airplane for the last leg of the trip into an active war zone.  President Roosevelt arrived at Casablanca’s Médiouna Airport at 6:20 p.m. on January 14, 1943.

Though the trip took several days with the stops, it was much faster than an Atlantic crossing onboard a ship.  Shipboard ocean crossings were common at that time but with the constant threat of a German submarine attack in the Atlantic, the president’s aerial crossing to Morocco was considered much safer than a shipboard ocean crossing.  The trip from Washington, D.C. to Casablanca was about 7,000 miles, but only about 5,500 was by air, beginning in Miami.  At that time, the term “Air Force One” was not used for the president’s plane – the Air Force did not even exist as an armed service separate from the Army until 1947.

The term “Air Force One” for the president’s plane did not begin to be used until the 1950’s and wasn’t officially used until 1962.  The term started being used informally because of a potential mishap.  In 1953 a flight of President Eisenhower’s plane was called “Air Force 8610” and another flight airborne at the same time was “Eastern Airlines 8610.”  Air traffic controller confusion resulted from the same number being used for two different flights.  It was decided that the callsign of the president’s plane should be distinctive so that it was not confused with other air traffic.  “Air Force One” was coined as a term.  Now, any Air Force aircraft that the president flies in is called “Air Force One.”  The president also routinely flies on a Marine Corps helicopter, known as “Marine One.”  Though the president rarely flies onboard Navy aircraft, when he does the aircraft is designated “Navy One.”

The iconic blue and white scheme associated with the plane now known as “Air Force One” was designed in the 1960’s.  The blue and white Boeing 747 aircraft that President Biden flies onboard today, President’s Day 2021, was first flown during the presidency of George H.W. Bush in 1990.  Though a replacement presidential aircraft should have been flying already, cost overruns and other complications have resulted in delays.  Boeing is now scheduled to deliver the new Air Force One to President Biden in 2024 at a cost of over $5 billion.