Oldies and Oddities: The President’s Plane is Missing

Oldies and Oddities: The President’s Plane is Missing

For Carlton Fisk it was his home run for the Boston Red Sox in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. For Joseph Heller it was Catch-22. Out of long and distinguished careers, each will be remembered most vividly for one thing alone. It’s the same for SAM 26000, a presidential aircraft that retired last April. In 36 years and 13,000 flight hours, the Boeing 707 served eight U.S. presidents. But what placed the airplane most firmly in the nation’s memory was a single mission: SAM 26000 flew John F. Kennedy to Dallas and brought his body back to Washington.

Joe Chappell was flight engineer that day and Paul Glynn was flight steward. Now retired, both chief master sergeants recalled how the Dallas stop veered suddenly from the festive to the ghastly. “The hearse pulled right up to our wingtip,” Chappell says. A bulkhead and two rows of seats were removed so the casket could be placed in the cabin rather than the cargo hold. Standing once more in the aisle where he had worked for 10 years, Glynn described the poignant sight of Lyndon Johnson helping to carry the casket of his predecessor into the aircraft.

During Johnson’s brief swearing-in ceremony, Glynn steadied the Air Force photographer who climbed high on a couch to get that famous shot of the crowded, anguished scene. Throughout the flight to Washington, Mrs. Kennedy sat quietly beside her husband, according to Glynn, still wearing her bloodied pink suit. Thirty years later, it was her casket being transported to Washington on the same aircraft for burial at the Kennedy gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.

At the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio, 26000 (known in Air Force parlance as a VC-137) has taken its place alongside Roosevelt’s Sacred Cow, Truman’s Independence, and Eisenhower’s Columbine III. If enough of the original furnishings can be found, 26000 may be restored to its Kennedy-era look.

Any Air Force aircraft flying the president carries the radio call sign Air Force One. SAM (for Special Air Missions) 26000 was the first jet in the military executive fleet specifically built for presidential use and the first that had been earmarked for the chief executive from its first day in service. From 1962 to 1972, 26000 was the primary presidential aircraft. It was shifted to backup duty when a newer 707 was added to the fleet. When two 747s took over in 1990, 26000 continued to carry other VIPs. Over its years of service, it flew Kennedy to Berlin and Ireland, Nixon to China, Kissinger to secret Vietnam peace talks, Congressional leaders back to Washington during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Queen Elizabeth II on a West Coast tour.

Throughout that long career, the interior of 26000 remained a work in progress. Incoming administrations would change the decorations, even the floor plan. Like earlier versions, the current configuration is functional, far from lavish. In most compartments, the seating is standard business class, two abreast. The president has a stateroom with adjoining lounge and private lavatory. Meetings can be held in that suite or couches can be converted into beds. Further aft is a staff room with office equipment. There are two galleys and a communications center.

Land a spot on that 18-member crew and you had a view of presidents and their families available to few other Americans. “They were all good eaters,” Charlie Palmer says of the presidents he served from 1973 to 1986. “But President Reagan would eat lighter when Mrs. Reagan was on board. She looked after him.” Nixon’s unvarying lunch: “A canned-pineapple ring and a scoop of cottage cheese, with no lettuce, no garnish of any sort, no decoration.” Reagan did want lots of jelly beans around, actually Jelly Bellies, and for Carter, naturally, it was peanuts, dry roasted.

The presidential stateroom has a sound system. As he recovered from gallbladder surgery and his presidency lost support during the Vietnam War, LBJ listened to one song repeatedly: “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” “I guess he figured everything was coming down on him,” Paul Glynn says. “We were so sorry to be hearing that song over and over.”

Vice President Al Gore was the last dignitary to fly aboard 26000. Air Force officials cited increasing maintenance costs as the reason for removing the venerable Boeing from service and eventually also its sister 707. They are being replaced by a pair of 757s. But there is no quiet retirement in store for 26000. It is hosting far more crowds now than it ever did in operation. “It’s in good hands,” says Air Force museum staffer Denise Bollinger. “We’re like a bunch of beaming parents.”

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