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)

Discovering my Aviation Roots: Part 1

I really do think aviation is in my blood. My parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines in the early 80s and my dad spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force. Simply put, planes are near and dear to my family. So I figured, why not learn a little more about my parents’ ties to flying… from how they began their aviation careers to their most exciting (and scariest) memories. 

We’ll start with my dad. As I’m sure is the case for a lot of daughters, my dad is a hero to me. I loved learning more about his past, and I hope you will too.

When and how was your interest in aviation first piqued?

I had zero interest in flight until I was a junior in college at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. One of my friends and I decided to hitchhike from Jackson to Knoxville to see a Kentucky vs. Tennessee football game. We got one ride all the way to Nashville, which was 120 miles, and then stood on the freeway for a couple of hours with no luck. We were right at the exit for the airport, and thought, “What the heck, let’s see how much it costs to fly to Knoxville!” We walked to the terminal and found that a one-way ticket was $18, but with our student discounts it was only $13. That was the first flight for both of us, and I was hooked from that moment on.

What years were you a flight attendant and what was that job like? Do you have a favorite memory?

I was with Eastern from the spring of 1978 until the fall of 1987, when we moved to Minnesota. Of course there were many good memories, especially having come across a long list of well-known personalities, but my biggest thrill was spending a whole day with Ted Williams.

It was during the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike during the Reagan era. As a result of the strike, there were very few qualified controllers, and many flights were cancelled for a number of weeks… maybe months. Because of this, a lot of previous nonstop flights now had multiple stops before reaching their final destination. I was on one such flight from Boston to Atlanta. I had worked that morning, and was “deadheading” back to Atlanta. Fortunately, I was given a first class seat on this three or four leg flight. Ted Williams sat next to me. We talked about everything from baseball to fishing to single malt scotch that day. I recall almost every detail of that flight.

What years were you in the Air Force and what exactly did you do? Do you have a favorite memory?

I was a navigator having completed my many prerequisite schools in the spring of 1973. Briefly, it was off to Loring, Maine until the summer of 1976, flying B-52s.

I had a tour to Guam in G model B-52s and another to Thailand in the D model. After that, I flew C-141s out of McGuire Air Force Base outside of Trenton, N.J. from June 1976 until May 1982. Next was the C-130, first at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga. until Sept. 1987.

Coming up with a favorite memory is really a tough one, but I’m going to go with my first C-141 flight to Europe. I believe it was to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, just outside of London. After years in the B-52, and almost always landing where we took off, it was great to finally get to see the world.

What is your favorite thing about flying?

It has to be the experience of visiting so many countries, and observing the different peoples and their cultures. You cannot learn that from any book.

What is your least favorite thing about flying?

I’m going to say it was the pressure of being in the B-52 during the height of the Cold War. It wasn’t actually flying itself, but rather, the fear of running out to the airplane during an alert drill, not knowing if it was another test, or the start of a nuclear war.

Tell me about the most frightening experience you ever had on an airplane.

That would have to be on a C-141 flight to Greenland sometime around 1978-79. There were multiple mistakes made by the pilots, the loadmaster, and myself. We were going to Thule, Greenland, and after a stop there we were to fly south to Kangerlussuaq Fjord (Danish: Søndre Strømfjord). The weather in Thule was the pits so we tried to land, and after not being able to, we went into a holding pattern.

After a while, it became obvious that we had to press on to Sondrestrom Air Base as an alternative. It was about two hours away, and we had just over 25,000 pounds of fuel. The C-141 burns about 12,000 pounds per hour.

We knew it would be close, so to keep spirits up, we all guessed how much fuel we’d have when we landed. On the ground, fuel is measured by a “dipstick” where the flight engineer walks on the wing, removes the fuel cap, and places the dipstick in.

We landed safely, without flaming out the engines for lack of fuel. I won the guessing game of how much fuel we would have: I said 2,000 pounds (about 12 minutes worth). When the engineer took his reading, he didn’t get anything… it was too low to measure.

Tell me about the most magical and/or amazing experience you ever had on an airplane.

I guess that would be the Ted Williams story I mentioned earlier. I’m certain that experience wasn’t something that many people had – outside of those associated with Ted Williams in baseball.

Do you have a favorite model of airplane? If so, what is it and why is it your favorite?

I’d say the C-141. As much as I loved the C-130 and all the missions I flew in it, the C-141 could take you a lot further on a tank of gas, and at faster speeds. The range and cargo capability of the C-141 made it a strategic airlifter, while the C-130 had more “tactical” airlift capabilities. That said, the C-130 could get you into airports (or grass strips) that the C-141 (or any other aircraft) couldn’t even consider.

What do you miss most about your career in aviation?

The people I worked with in each of the aircraft, as well as the relationships I tried to develop with all of our support personnel: maintenance, refuelers, life support, etc.

What is the most drastic change you’ve seen over the years between when you first started your aviation career and today?

That’s an easy one: the overall technology changes that have taken place. When I first started in the B-52, we primarily relied on celestial and radar to get from point A to point B. And while we had external navigation aids like Tacan, VOR, Loran, etc., we weren’t allowed to use any of those on check rides because they wouldn’t be available in a time of war. The only difference between that era and the ancient mariners on the sea was that we had radar!

Then came along Inertia Navigation Systems (INS) followed by all of the satellite based navaids, so the career of the navigator was quickly brought to the point of extinction. There are still navigators around in a lot of military airplanes, but that probably won’t be true for much longer.

I came along at a perfect time. I was able start out “old school” with not much technology, but I also experienced all of the modern technology that would eventually kill my career field. And my timing allowed for a long career… folks who worked much earlier than myself never saw the marvels of GPS, and those that came along 20-30 years later would never get the benefits of having a complete career in the field of navigation.

So there you have it, folks. My dad was spot on when he told me his answers would likely result in more questions on my part, but I loved learning more about his career, especially his time in the Air Force.

I remember spending a lot of time on the Air Force Base here in Minneapolis when I was a little kid, and I remember back then it wasn’t always my favorite place to be. Thinking back on it now, I wish I hadn’t taken those visits for granted, but hindsight is 20/20, right?

I can’t afford to dwell on the past, though. Here I am, nearly 30 years old, and with my love of planes I’ve come to realize just how lucky I am to have someone in my life who can tell me such incredible, special stories about flying.

I love the planes… I just love ’em

fed_ex_annieNote: This was originally posted December 28, 2016 on my personal blog, Life in Scrabble Tiles. It seemed like a fitting way to start things off on The Great Planes. Enjoy.

I consider only one man made “thing” on this earth to be as truly remarkable and awe-inspiring as Mother Nature herself: the airplane.

I try to make it out to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at least once a week to watch my flying “friends.” I pop in my headphones to listen to the MSP tower air traffic control feed, and I sit down and just stare agape, as though I’ve never seen a plane before.

“Taxi via Whiskey to 3-0 left and line up and wait,” one of the controllers will instruct a captain and his first officer. During busier times, they’ll shoot those planes off the runways one after another with seemingly no end in site. And maybe delayed, time-crunched passengers wouldn’t be too thrilled to find out they were about to “line up and wait,” but let me tell you… when I hear that phrase, you can bet your bottom dollar this girl’s happy. Because that means the show’s just starting.

And let me clarify: I love all planes. Whether it’s a little “dink” like a Subair Beechcraft 1900, or a “Big Kahuna” like an Air France Airbus A340… I love them all and am just as excited by each and every one of them. OK, there is one exception: I am obsessed (and I mean obsessed) with the MD-11… specifically UPS and/or Fed Ex MD-11s, there’s just something about that tail engine.

On the days that I’m not lucky enough to find myself out at MSP, I’ll flip on an aviation documentary of some sort or just watch a handful of plane-related YouTube videos (my current favorites being cockpit-view takeoffs — I get chills… CHILLS when they rotate).

And don’t even get me started on my aviation-related decorations and accessories. Between the many planes that sit on my desk at work, the seaplane that hangs from our living room ceiling, the biplane mounted on our bedroom wall… I can’t even keep track anymore. Though I will say that “Big Bo,” my new plush 747, holds a very special place in my heart, as do the propeller earrings my husband Scott gave me for Christmas.

But why planes? Why?

I think it’s safe to say that aviation is in my blood. My parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines in the early 80s, and my dad spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force. And somehow over the years, a love that I now know was there all along, just grew and grew before evolving into this great passion of mine.

As a general rule, our minds tend to “think forward.” And by that I mean, most of us are aware (and appreciative) of all the great things we as humans have been able to do thus far during our time here on earth, making us pretty excited for the future and the possibility it holds. But somehow, every time I see a plane take off, it makes me “excited” by the past. I realize how wondrous a thing it is, even today, to be able to see something so huge, something so heavy, just lift off the ground and actually fly. It makes me excited to think of what a breathtaking moment it must have been for the Wright Brothers to see their “flying machine” live up to its namesake for the first time.

And now, more than a century after Orville and Wilbur’s invention gave rise to aviation as we know it, I’m here to say: don’t let that magic die. There are so many inventions that we take for granted nowadays, some more extraordinary than others; but the plane… I mean, of course it’s “just physics,” but to me, it’s physics in its most majestic form. The fact that lift, gravity, thrust, and drag all work together to carry a tube full of people through the sky from one place to another, is nothing to scoff at.

At any given moment, there are thousands of planes in the air, just over the U.S alone. So whether you’re a frequent flyer or someone who rarely takes to the skies, next time you’re in an airplane, or even the next time you look up at the sky and see a contrail, just take a minute to think about how truly miraculous flight really is.

-Annie