Air Force One from era of Kennedy on display

Plane part of major historical event

DAYTON, Ohio -- Air Force One drops from a sky the same color blue as its distinctive stripe and lands at Love Field in Dallas, Texas, 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 pill box hat, walk into a bright day and a dark destiny. In less than an hour, the president would be dead.

Air Force One's buoyant arrival in Dallas and grief-stricken departure following John Kennedy's assassination are the bookends of that day's tragic events. As such, the plane, literally and figuratively, became a moving historical artifact of one of the defining moments of the 20th century.

Plane that transported JFK from Dallas to D.C. on display

The plane that carried the body of President John F. Kennedy from Dallas to Washington, D.C., is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. Visitors are able to tour the plane. (Video by Michael Henninger; 11/17/2013)

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, D.C. And all of this transpired in the sanctuary of the flying White House that was rife with grief, tension and uncertainty about who was behind the assassination.

If you go

Through Dec. 1, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is expanding to four the number of bus trips per day for visitors to tour JFK’s Air Force One, which is located in its Presidential Gallery on a controlled-access portion of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

The shuttle service is offered on a first-come, first-served basis, and visitors are encouraged to sign up early in the day as buses fill up quickly. A current government-issued photo ID is required for U.S. citizens over age 18, and all foreign visitors must present an original passport.

Anyone under age 18 must be escorted by an adult. Shuttle buses are not handicapped accessible, and individuals requiring special assistance should contact the museum’s Operations Division in advance at 937-255-3286 to arrange transportation.

"[Air Force One] was the most secure place they knew," said Jeffery S. Underwood, historian for the National Museum of the United States 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."

Officially known as SAM 26000 -- for "Special Air Mission" and its tail number -- the plane hasn't flown since 1998 but continues to serve the country as a historic 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 John Kennedy because he was the first to use it.

Before SAM 26000 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 Jackie Kennedy saw an opportunity to create a memorable, sophisticated, modern image for the president's travels.

She enlisted famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy -- known for his work for Coca-Cola, Lucky Strike cigarettes, Studebaker cars and streamlined trains -- to design the exterior. 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 Loewy's design that it has been used on every subsequent Air Force One, even the 747s in use today.

Upon seeing Air Force One up close in the hangar, a visitor is immediately filled with awe at its majestic look. The realization surges: This was JFK's plane. And, inevitably, what follows are sad memories of its historic time in Dallas 50 years ago this coming Friday.

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. While most everything inside is encased behind Plexiglas, making for tight going, tourists can see into the cockpit, the communications center and the private presidential suite and state room, passenger seating, work areas and galleys.

All of it is fascinating, but its two historic spots bring chills. First is the area where Johnson took the oath of office, recorded for posterity in a famous photograph.

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 was packed by 27 onlookers -- staffers, congressmen, Secret Service agents, Air Force One crew. LBJ wanted as many people as possible to witness the transfer of power and wanted it recorded and photographed to let the world know there was no power vacuum in the United States despite the great tragedy that had befallen it.

Mr. Underwood, who holds a Ph.D. in American military history, marvels at LBJ's command despite the swirling chaos. He had been rushed to Air Force One for his safety but refused to leave Dallas without Jackie and the president's body. When she arrived, he asked if she would join him for the swearing-in ceremony and she agreed.

"The air conditioning was disconnected so they could take off as quickly as possible," Mr. Underwood related. "The day was warming up, the humidity was high, the room was already getting stuffy with all the people crammed inside plus the heart rates were high, breathing was high, the stress rates must have been unbearable.

"What must have been going through President Johnson's mind at the time? He must have been reeling with all the things he had to do so fast," Mr. Underwood said, standing at the spot where LBJ stood. "Jackie Kennedy is standing there doing what she needed to do ... even though she had gone through a terrible tragedy.

"Just a few months before, she had lost a son and now she lost her husband. The emotional level and strength of that woman to do that," he marveled. "The Johnsons and everyone were being as nice as possible while still conducting official business and making sure the republic was safe."

It is silent for a moment. Echoes of grief from half a century ago wash over a visitor.

A little farther back near the rear door, is where John 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," says Mr. Underwood, who admits 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.

This "was the first true presidential aircraft," he said. "The beauty of it immediately catches your eye. It's one of most important places in American history. Our job is to make sure it's just as good in 300 years as it is now."

Michael A. Fuoco: or 412-263-1968.

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