Ferdinand I of Bulgaria was the first leader to fly, doing so in 1910. Soon after, the idea of a customised airliner for the transportation of national leaders spread across the globe. Often practicality is as important as a sense of theatre for presidential aircraft, and these sometimes lavishly equipped machines show-off the wealth, sophistication and importance of the nation making a visit. Sam Wise takes us on a brief important flight through ten of his favourite presidential aircraft.
Sadly ten was not enough to include all the aircraft we might have liked to include, and honourable mentions must go to Truman’s C-54 and the West German VFW-Fokker 614.
10. Columbine II (I’d better avoid a pun here)
Air Force One is best known as a 1997 thriller movie starring Harrison Ford as a US president who single-handedly defeats some real bad hombres trying to hijack an aeroplane he’s on. What most don’t know is that the film is actually named after the aeroplane designated as the US President’s personal transport – today a VC-25A (well, a 747 really), but first of all an achingly beautiful Lockheed VC-121 Constellation named Columbine II. Lending its name to all future POTUS transports (yes, we know Air Force One is technically whatever plane he’s on at any time, but whatever), Dwight D Eisenhower’s personal transport was the first to use the AF1 callsign and it stuck ever since, along with the fact of having a dedicated USAF transport aircraft to move the president around.
9. Saudi Comet ‘Aziz carrier’
The Saudi royal family has had an extraordinary range of Royal Flight aircraft across the decades. 747s, MD-11, Convair 340, Tristar, even an L-100 Hercules, but none come more stylish than the de Havilland Comet 4. Although a troubled type, the Saudis have always had a penchant for British aircraft and when they look as stunning as the Comet did it’s no surprise that King Saud bin Abdul Aziz would want to fly on it. That said, he was probably very happy he didn’t on its last day in 1963 – after less than a year in service with the Royal Flight and crewed by de Havilland trained American pilots it crashed into a peak of Italy’s Catena delle Guide while on descent. The King and his family were not on board, but the accident made it the shortest lived presidential aircraft on the list.
8. Argentine FMA IA 50 Guaraní II ‘Guaraní indeed’
Another presidential fleet with quite an eclectic stable, Argentina’s Agrupación Aérea Presidencial’s jewel – or not – has to be the spectacularly ugly but wonderfully indigineous Guarani II. Ok, it’s not a world-beater in any category but the audacity to assign your president an aircraft that looks like this for his personal transport is quite something and instantly pushes it into the cool category – it’s a hell of a flex to turn up on a state visit in a plane that’s part washing machine. Somewhat notable, the type was the first Latin American-designed aircraft to cross the Atlantic and was further flight tested in France, so there’s some distinction for it.
7. North Korean Mil Mi-17 ‘공산주의 땅벌’
The ‘Air Koryo’ Presidential Mi-17 easily falls into our Top Ten because I’ve actually flown on it. Even if I hadn’t – how could you not include a Hip with sofas and a wall-mounted clock on the list?! The helicopter is also used to transport tourists around the country in something resembling comfort, and could well be the only helicopter in the world with a throw rug.
6. Bell Boeing MV-22B Osprey ‘Trump’s Plopter’
Ospreys are cool. Darling of Hollywood and bane of cynical, ill-informed aviation nerds the V-22 family has pushed through the rocky times to become a brilliant transport platform, and what better validation can there be than flying around your head of state? Marine One use the MV-22 in that ridiculously slick dark green scheme to move the President around on short hops, presumably with rock music and eagle screeching blaring out when the propellor mounts rotate.
There’s some rumours that they don’t let the POTUS actually fly on the V-22s themselves out of fear of the safety record – but we don’t believe that, do we? No, it’s much nicer to think of President Trump flying around in something that had four crashes in a ten year testing period…
Interview with an Osprey pilot here.
5. Gambian Ilyushin Il-62 ‘Use your Ilyushin’
There aren’t many Il-62s left flying in the world, and even fewer have been taken on service this side of TaTu’s All the Things She Said hitting number one in the UK charts, but so The Gambia’s presidential classic Classic was in 2005 if you can believe it. The aircraft was first delivered to the Uzbekistan government in 1993 but eventually made its way to The Gambia as the personal steed of the president. It’s probably still flying today. Why Africa’s smallest country and one of its poorest needs such a large and maintenance heavy Soviet airliner is anyone’s guess, but you keep on trucking. Plus, it looks great.
4. Commando, Churchill ‘Going Commando with Winston’
Commando was Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s personal transport in the Second World War. A heavily modified Consolidated Liberator II, and an airframe that would in fact undergo significant modifications itself with a full tail and nose change, it took Churchill to North Africa to put Montgomery in charge of the British forces there, Turkey and even Moscow to speak with Stalin.
The VIP interior included an electric galley and even a bed for the PM for his long flights and the crew was mixed US and Canadian who all received British awards for their flying services after Churchill eventually switched to an Avro York for his transportation needs.
Commando itself met a mysterious end in 1945, disappearing on a flight over the Atlantic to Canada with no trace ever found. A sad end for a notable and historical aircraft.
3. Brazilian Lockheed VC-66 Lodestar ‘FAB 001’
This is a real one-off aircraft. Ish. The world’s only VC-66 Lodestar was also Brazil’s first ever presidential aircraft, taken on strength in 1942. Originally a C-66 (itself unique) which was a military versioning of the Lockheed 18 with a VIP interior, it was eventually redesignated the extraordinarily different VC-66 Lodestar and flew with the Brazilian Air Force as FAB 001 (big Thunderbirds fans, I guess) until the mid 60s
2. French Sud Aviation Caravelle ‘Le Comet’
The Sud Aviation Caravelle is one of a long line of beautiful French aircraft, and served as a suitable mount in VIP fit for President Charles de Gaulle. The President, who took his name from the ghastly Parisian airport, chose the type as his personal aircraft in 1958 and in fact the prototype had been christened by his wife only three years earlier. The aircraft was a delight to fly by all pilot’s accounts and with ovoid windows and engines mounted on rear pods it was a defining look of those early jet years, and with a French roundel and beautiful presidential livery it particularly stands out on this list.
1. Tupolev Tu-114 ‘Cleat intolerant’
The Tu-114 – one of the best looking turboliners ever made – was arguably the first long-range airliner ever built. It was developed specifically for Khrushchev to look baller when arriving in the US, a play in the endless game of US-USSR dickmeasuring that lasted for 40 odd years, the short ranged Il-18 having been deemed too paltry and humiliating for the big man. It blew the Americans away, to the point that when it landed in the US it was so large they had nothing that could get the president out of the aircraft to the ground, and he had to use the escape ladder. Much more successful than its brother the Tu-116, the Cleat was also basically developed from the Bear strategic bomber, which is, you know, a pretty rad thing to say about a presidential plane. One of few aircraft designed specifically for this role, it nevertheless turned into a very successful airliner by all accounts and served Aeroflot for many years. The Tu-114 still holds the world record for fastest propellor-driven aircraft.
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