JFK'S Air Force One earns rest
Historic plane retired

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

If you go

What: U.S. Air Force Museum.
Where: 1100 Spaatz St., Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The museum is 6 miles northeast of downtown Dayton on Springfield Pike.
When: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Directions: From Cincinnati, take Interstate 75 north to Needmore Road east. Follow signs to museum and enter Gate 28-B.
Cost: Parking and admission free.
Information: (937) 255-3286.
About Air Force One
Historic highlights of 1st "Air Force One"

October 1962: First flight picks up Crown Prince of Libya and carries him to Washington for a state visit.

November 1962: President Kennedy's first flight aboard 26000 takes him to Hyde Park, N.Y., for funeral of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

May 1963: Answers a Soviet claim that the United States has no aircraft capable of flying non-stop to Moscow; 26000 sets an international speed record by completing the 5,004-mile non-stop flight from Washington to Moscow in 8 hours, 38 minutes and 42 seconds.

June 1963: 26000 flies President Kennedy to West Berlin, where he delivers his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

November 1963: Carries President Kennedy to Texas for multicity visit. On Nov. 22, after the president is assassinated in Dallas, it transports his casket to Washington. Before taking off, Lyndon Johnson is sworn in aboard the aircraft.

July 1969: President Nixon rides 26000 to Johnston Island in the Pacific and catches a Marine helicopter to the carrier Hornet. There he greets the returning Apollo 11 astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon and now a Warren County resident.

February 1972: President Nixon takes 26000 to China for his "journey for peace" mission to re-establish diplomatic ties. During this period, the plane also secretly spirits Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Paris for classified peace negotiations with North Vietnamese officials.

May 1972: The aircraft is part of another of Mr. Nixon's groundbreaking foreign relations trips, this one to the Soviet Union.

December 1972: 26000 is placed in a back-up role to a new Boeing 707. The second 707 serves as primary presidential plane until the current 747 is introduced during the Bush administration. October 1981: Carries former presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter to Cairo to attend the funeral of slain Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

June 1997: Flies Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Hong Kong for July 1 transfer of the territory from Britain to China. It was one of the more than 200 flights that 26000 made during 1997 to 58 countries.

January 1998: Dispatched to Champaign, Ill., to bring President Clinton back to Washington. His 747 got stuck in mud off a runway. March 1998: Final state flight carries Vice President Al Gore to South Carolina before returning to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

The first Air Force One will make its last flight today.

The Boeing 707 that was the primary aircraft for U.S. presidents from 1962 through 1972 will arrive this morning at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

After a month of preparation, the plane known as 26000 (pronounced "two, six-thousand") will join eight other former presidential aircraft on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum.

The plane, most noted for carrying President Kennedy's casket from Dallas to Washington in 1963 following his assassination, is considered the nation's most historic plane.

"If history itself had wings, it probably would be this very aircraft," Vice President Al Gore told reporters in March after making the final official state flight aboard 26000.

The 707 has traveled more than 5 million miles since it was put into service in 1962, but it shows few signs of age. The scarcity of 707 parts and the plane's high exhaust and noise levels were the reasons for 26000's retirement. It made more than 200 trips in 1997 alone as part of the Air Force's Special Air Missions (SAM) fleet at Andrews.

"It was a top-notch plane," said retired Air Force Col. James Swindal, 80, who piloted the presidential plane from 1960 through 1965. "All of those 707s were. This was the first intercontinental model.

"It could fly non-stop to Europe or Hawaii. It was well laid out inside. The communications and telephone systems were almost like being in the White House."

Col. Swindal, who lives in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and will attend today's retirement ceremony at Wright-Patterson, is one of several presidential insiders who have bittersweet memories of 26000. "It was a much faster, much larger plane than we had ever flown," said retired Air Force Master Sgt. John Hames, 62, of Connersville, Ind.. He worked as a steward from 1960 through 1975 aboard Air Force One. "It was so much faster that we had less time to prepare meals, but we got the job done."

Master Sgt. Hames was one of five stewards who cleaned and stocked 26000 with food and beverages.

President Kennedy was a "great person for soup. It was a comfort food for him," Master Sgt. Hames said. "President Johnson was kind of different. He told me that any beef prepared aboard Air Force One had to be well done. He didn't care for rare beef the way the group from New England did."

President Nixon "ate fairly light . . . cottage cheese. President Ford ate almost anything, but he was in such a short time."

One flight will forever stand out for those who were aboard: Dallas to Washington, Nov. 22, 1963.

Malcolm Kilduff, 71, of Beattyville, Ky., was deputy press secretary and worked for press secretary Pierre Salinger under President Kennedy. Mr. Kilduff rode in the third car of the motorcade in Dallas that day, two cars behind the president when he was shot. Back on the plane at Love Field about an hour after the shooting, Mr. Kilduff made preparations for Mr. Johnson's swearing in.

"We had no sound cameras, so I found a Dictaphone and tested the belt," said Mr. Kilduff, who held a microphone between Mr. Johnson and federal District Judge Sarah Hughes.

"President Johnson didn't want to take off before being sworn in, and if you look at pictures, you can see the scowl on his face," Mr. Kilduff said. "He was upset about JFK, but he also didn't like Judge Hughes. He had opposed her appointment to the bench. I'm sure he was thinking, "Of all the people to swear me in. . . ."

The new president then put Mr Kilduff to work in front of the plane, patching through calls to Mr. Kennedy's family members -- brothers Ted and Bobby and mother Rose.

"Mr. Johnson was kind and very nice to them on the phone," Mr. Kilduff said.

Col. Swindal was aboard the plane listening to the Secret Service radio when the president was shot.

"My first reaction was to get the plane ready in a hurry to get back to Walter Reed (Hospital in Washington)," he said. "We hoped it was a wound. When we heard he had died, we wanted to make sure nothing else went wrong. I got off the plane and saluted the casket when it arrived."

Master Sgt. Hames was among the crew members who removed seats and a wall from a rear section of the plane, so President Kennedy's casket would not have to go in the cargo hold.

"We served a lot of beverages (Scotch) on the way back," Master Sgt. Hames said in an interview from Connersville, where he manages a country club. "It was a long ride back to Washington. Nobody wanted to eat. Mrs. Kennedy was in shock. She still had on the blood-stained clothes."

Jack Valenti, 76, now president of the Motion Picture Association of America, was one of five special assistants to President Johnson. Mr. Valenti, who had a political consulting - ad agency in Houston, handled promotion for the Kennedy-Johnson trip to Texas.

He had known Mr. Johnson for many years and was asked by LBJ at Parkland Hospital, where President Kennedy was pronounced dead, to join the new administration.

"I said, "Yes, sir,' " Mr. Valenti said. "Like the nation, my life changed that day."

He rode back to Washington in the rear of 26000, near Mrs. Kennedy and the casket.

That was Mr. Valenti's first ride aboard Air Force One.

His last ride would come 10 years later.

In January 1973, he again rode beside the flag-draped coffin of a dead president.

Mr. Valenti was sitting with Lady Bird Johnson on a flight from Washington, where President Johnson's body had lain in state in the Capitol rotunda. They were going back to Austin, Texas, where Mr. Johnson would be laid to rest on his ranch.

Other memorable flights

Col. Swindal recalls flying into West Berlin in June 1963. That's where President Kennedy delivered his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

"The Russians put MiGs (fighter planes) up on both our wings so we would stay in the corridor over East Germany to West Berlin. They didn't want us to spy," said Col. Swindal, who had experience flying into Berlin. In 1947, he flew coal, oil and other supplies into West Berlin as part of the airlift to counter the Soviet blockade. Master Sgt. Hames remembers how pleased President Nixon was aboard Air Force One after completing diplomatic missions to China and the Soviet Union in 1972.

Even after it was placed into a secondary role in December 1972, 26000 still carried presidents -- as many as three at a time for the 1981 funeral of slain Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Former Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter were aboard for the flight to Cairo, as was President Reagan's representative, Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who commandeered the executive quarters. At one point, crew members recall seeing the three former presidents and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger all waiting in line to use the general restroom.

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