Photos: Air Force One at SEA

This blog post contains photos and video from U.S. President Joe Biden’s April 21-22, 2022, visit to Seattle, posted in the order in which they were taken. Interspersed within the imagery is the story of why this event was especially meaningful to me, both personally and professionally. -Annie

On the evening of Thursday, April 21, I got to experience something extra special… something I feel like I’ve been waiting for my entire life. On behalf of my blog, The Great Planes, I was granted White House press credentials to cover the arrival of President Joe Biden aboard VC-25A, better known as “Air Force One,” into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. I was among roughly a dozen other local journalists (mainly television news reporters and photographers) who were perched atop a platform roughly four feet high, situated on the airfield just next to where the big, beautiful presidential jet would soon park. This was my first time seeing Air Force One, so naturally it was a very special day for me as an aviation blogger and photographer. But as an aviation historian, this particular airplane and the legacy of presidential air transport has always been of interest to me, and in fact, played a large part in how I got to where I am today.

Next January will mark the 80th anniversary of U.S. presidents relying primarily on Boeing and heritage company airplanes. The first time a sitting president traveled by air was in January 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to Casablanca, Morocco, on a Boeing Model 314 Clipper flying boat operated by Pan American Airways. The Model 314 was the “jumbo” of her time and the original Queen of the Skies – the “Grandmother” of the Boeing 747, if you will. Over the next two decades, the presidential fleet was continually upgraded and included military versions of the Douglas DC-4 and DC-6, designated VC-54C and VC-118A, respectively. In these designations, the “V” stands for “VIP” and the “C” for “transport.” The VC-54C was the first airplane specifically built for use by the President of the United States, and was nicknamed the “Sacred Cow” by Roosevelt.

In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower broke the mold when he assumed office and brought with him a customized Lockheed Constellation, designated VC-121E. In fact, it was that airplane in that year that became the first to use the “Air Force One” callsign. In 1954, he upgraded to a Super Constellation. Toward the end of his second term, the administration acquired the first of three customized Boeing 707-120s, designated VC-137A, bringing the presidential fleet into the Jet Age. Although President Eisenhower often flew aboard the 707s – known as SAM (for Special Air Mission) 970, 971 and 972 – he still relied primarily on his Super Constellation. The U.S. Air Force “Special Air Mission” provides air transport for the sitting president and other high ranking officials. Whenever the president is on board one of the airplanes, that flight assumes the callsign “Air Force One.”

In 1962, John F. Kennedy became the first president to fly in a jet designed and built specifically for presidential use. The airplane – SAM 26000 – was the first of two highly modified Boeing 707-320Bs, designated VC-137Cs, to enter service. The second aircraft, SAM 27000, entered service in 1972. These two VC-137Cs were the first presidential planes to sport the iconic blue and white Raymond Loewy livery, still worn on today’s presidential 747s. SAM 26000 is perhaps best known for its role in one of the most tragic events in American history. On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy flew on SAM 26000 to Dallas, where he was assassinated. Lyndon B. Johnson was then sworn in as President on SAM 26000 before it departed for Washington, D.C., with Kennedy’s body on board.

The VC-137C served as the primary presidential airplane until 1990, when the VC-25A – a modified Boeing 747-200B – was introduced. The 747 first flew in 1969 and over the last 50-plus years has served in a multitude of roles, both civil and military. However, I think most aviation professionals would agree that the 747’s most famous role in history has been that of “Air Force One.”

I began my career with Boeing toward the end of 2017, and shortly thereafter I attended a presentation by our senior corporate historian, Mike Lombardi. I was fascinated with the stories he told and did whatever I could to stay in touch with him, thinking maybe, just maybe, one day I’d be fortunate to join his team. In the summer of 2018, I was reading about Boeing’s rich history of transporting U.S. presidents, and realized that the 747 was getting close to taking the reins from the 707 as the longest serving “Air Force One” airplane. I put pen to paper and did the math, down to the day. One could take a number of different approaches to these calculations, but I chose to base mine on delivery date.

The first VC-137C was delivered to the U.S. Air Force on Oct. 10, 1962, and the first VC-25A on Aug. 23, 1990, meaning nearly 28 years (or 10,179 days) separated the two dates. I calculated that July 7, 2018, marked 10,180 days since the first VC-25A was delivered. That was it. July 7, 2018, would be the day when the 747 would become the longest serving presidential aircraft. I excitedly shared my findings with Mike, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was fortunate to join Boeing’s Historical Services team the following year, and there’s been no looking back.

I’ve been running this blog and social media accounts by the same name for five years now, and never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take me this far. I found out that my application for press credentials was approved just hours before President Biden’s arrival into Sea-Tac. Upon my arrival at the press check-in location, I was instructed to empty my bags and lay everything out across the pavement so that the Secret Service could inspect it and the security dogs could sniff it. I was patted down from head to toe, then instructed to repack my bags, before being escorted onto the airfield. The anticipation was almost as exciting as the arrival itself. The weather wasn’t great – temperatures hovered around 50 degrees and rain clouds lingered for most of the afternoon. In fact, just moments after Air Force One’s 5:11 p.m. PT arrival, it began to drizzle, and it slowly grew into a steady shower. By the time the fanfare had come to an end, I was completely unphased by the fact that I was soaking wet and freezing cold. I was actually much more concerned about my camera equipment than I was about myself.

Friday was equally exciting. I was able to spend the morning airside at King County International Airport (Boeing Field) to watch a fleet of four MV-22 Ospreys and two VH-60N Whitehawks – part of HMX-1 (Marine Helicopter Squadron One or “Marine One”) – depart for Auburn, Washington, to pick up President Biden. I then zipped down to Sea-Tac to cover Biden’s arrival on Marine One, and subsequent departure on Air Force One. The afternoon ended up being quite eventful, as a suspicious vehicle at Sea-Tac caused the prompt relocation of the 747 to the middle of the airfield, where the fleet of helicopters met it. Biden was swiftly transferred to the airplane, before it and the support helicopters departed to the south. Air Force One was headed cross-country to Philadelphia, and the Marine One fleet was going back to Boeing Field where it would spend one more night. All support equipment had left the Seattle area by lunchtime Saturday.

Everything about the President’s visit was exhilarating and inspiring. Until Thursday, I had never in my life seen a sitting president in person, and had never seen so much security in one place. I am eternally grateful for this unique opportunity and I truly hope you get even half the satisfaction from seeing these photos as I did taking them. Cue “Hail to the Chief.”

Long live the Queen: VC-25A is now officially the longest serving presidential aircraft

SAM 28000, one of two current VC-25As (photo: Wikipedia)

It’s official: the Boeing VC-25A—two modified 747-200Bs with tail numbers 28000 and 29000, more commonly referred to as Air Force One—is now the longest-serving presidential aircraft. I’ve been tracking this milestone for awhile now, and to be quite honest, I actually botched it at first (don’t judge… I’m not a mathematician!).

Because I also have a strange fascination with the Kennedy family (who doesn’t?), I knew that JFK’s two modified 707s with tail numbers 26000 and 27000 (the Boeing VC-137C) were most certainly the longest serving presidential aircraft of all time… I didn’t, however, realize just how soon today’s Queens of the Skies were going to steal the crown from those two planes that first entered service when Kennedy was in office.

I originally (and mistakenly) did my calculations as follows (using the entry-into-service date for the VC-137C as opposed to the first time it actually flew as Air Force One). This had VC-25A officially becoming the longest serving presidential aircraft on Aug. 5, just a couple days ago.

VC-137C (two different modified 707s:  SAM 26000 and SAM 27000)

10,194 days between Oct. 9, 1962 (VC-137C first entered service) and Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first flew as Air Force One)

VC-25A (two different modified 747-200Bs: SAM 28000 and SAM 29000)

10,195 days between Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first flew as Air Force One) and Aug. 5, 2018

However, upon realizing my mistake and finding the actual date when VC-137C first flew with Kennedy on board (therefore using the call sign Air Force One), November 10, 1962, I realized that my timeline had moved up roughly a month and that this milestone actually happened on July 4 of this year (pretty cool date for an American milestone, eh?).

VC-137C (two different modified 707s:  SAM 26000 and SAM 27000)

10,162 days between Nov. 10, 1962 (VC-137C first flew as Air Force One) and Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first few as Air Force One)

VC-25A (two different modified 747-200Bs: SAM 28000 and SAM 29000)

10,163 days between Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first flew as Air Force One) and July 4, 2018

It is important to note, however, that this doesn’t mean the 747 (generally speaking) is the longest serving presidential aircraft… that honor still goes to the 707, at least for now. Dwight D. Eisenhower was actually the first to fly in a modified Boeing 707 using the call sign Air Force One (VC-137B) when he departed Dec. 3, 1959 on his “Flight to Peace” goodwill tour to 11 Asian nations.

The 747 won’t officially take the crown from the 707 for another three years, on June 11, 2021.

Boeing 707

11,235 days between Dec. 3, 1959 (707 first flew as Air Force One) and Sept. 6, 1990 (747 first flew as Air Force One)

Boeing 747

11,236 days between Sept. 6, 1990 (747 first flew as Air Force One) and June 11, 2021

I want to give a special thanks to our incredibly awesome historian here at Boeing, Mike Lombardi, for reminding me that it’s important to make these distinctions. And, I’ll add… that June 2021 milestone is a surefire thing since the new Air Force One planes currently on order are two 747-8s expected to be delivered (last I heard) by 2024. So even if they were delivered tomorrow, they’re still 747s and the math still works… so there.

With that, there’s only one thing left to say: Long live the Queen.

Boeing: Air Force One (read about past, current and future presidential aircraft)