This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

With the impending release of a massive trove of documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, it’s time to look at one of the legacies that JFK has given us — one that has a direct link to aviation. Though the impact of his short tenure in the White House will be debated till the end of the republic, there’s no question about one aspect of his years at the helm : he left us with the Air Force One we know it today.

And the Boeing VC-137C designated SAM 26000 — the one that took JFK to Dallas in 1963 and carried his body out of Dallas three hours and three minutes later — is arguably the most iconic single aircraft in history. As the Pentagon gets ready to replace its current set of Air Force One jets with two Boeing 747s bought almost-new from Boeing, we can look back at how JFK revolutionized presidential airplane travel at the dawn of the jet age.

Before JFK’s Air Force One, presidential planes were far more utilitarian, mostly slightly glorified civil aircraft drafted into commander-in-chief duty. Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to fly in planes specifically designated “Air Force One” — three Boeing VC-137B, derived from the 707 commercial transport.

Air Force One arrives in Washington D.C. carrying the body of assasinated president John F. Kennedy from Dallas. November 22, 1963. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Air Force One arrives in Washington D.C. carrying the body of assasinated president John F. Kennedy from Dallas. November 22, 1963. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Those were also the first presidential jets, officially named Special Air Mission (SAM) 970, 971 and 972. They weren’t pretty: Workers splashed safety-orange paint on the nose and tail, along with the words “Military Air Transport Service” in block letters on the body, as if the leader of the free world were no more than a load of government-issue cargo.

When she became first lady, the brand-conscious Jacqueline Kennedy had those words replaced with “United States of America,” and when a highly customized long-range VC-137C (another 707 variant, with longer range than the B model) rolled out of the plant in Renton, Wash., in 1962, a year into the Kennedy administration, she and the president saw an opportunity to turn the heretofore lackluster presidential plane into a symbol of American power and reach. They tapped hugely influential industrial designer Raymond Loewy (who claimed credit for the design of Lucky Strikes, the Lincoln Continental and, more controversially, the Coca-Cola bottle) to reinvent Air Force One.

(Air Force One is the official designation of any US Air Force aircraft carrying the president at the moment, and each plane reverts to its non-presidential code when he’s not on board. Today’s presidential planes, for example, are two Boeing 747-200B aircraft with the Air Force code VC-25A, which go by the call signs SAM 28000 and 29000 when not in presidential use.)

The flight deck of SAM 26000 (Photo courtesy of Lyle Jansma, Aerocapture Images, via US Air Force)
The flight deck of SAM 26000 (Photo courtesy of Lyle Jansma, Aerocapture Images, via US Air Force)

Loewy softened the look of the presidential plane and made it look far less military or industrial. He also came up with new livery, stamping the presidential seal on the fuselage, putting the Stars and Stripes on the tail, and choosing a daring overall paint scheme of red and gold. President Kennedy loved it, except for one detail: He wanted the colors to be blue and silver instead of red and gold. (Depending on the source, it was because blue was his favorite color, or because he thought red and gold smacked of something more appropriate to a monarchy.) It’s the same design that Air Force One uses today.

That’s the way SAM 26000 (always pronounced “two-six-thousand”) looked when he flew it to West Berlin and gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, and when he took it from Fort Worth’s Carswell Air Force Base to Dallas Love Field (DAL), where he landed on Nov. 22, 1963. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on the VC-137C that afternoon as a shocked, grieving Jackie Kennedy looked on. Air Force One took the dead president, his widow and the new president to Washington, DC, and was part of the honor flight overhead as JFK was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery three days later.

LBJ turned Air Force One into a second home, barreling around the world while engaging in his famously blustery form of Texas-style diplomacy. When Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in February 1972, it was the SAM 26000 that took him there. Later that year, it became the backup Air Force One when a newer VC-137 came into presidential service, but it continued to be critical to events in world history, including ferrying Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to the States in 1983.

SAM 26000 was finally retired in 1998, during the Clinton administration, with Vice President Al Gore as its last high-ranking passenger. It had transported eight US presidents and logged more than 13,000 flight hours and millions of miles. Now it calls the National Museum of the United States Air Force, at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio, home.

Featured image of SAM 26000 by US Air Force / Ken LaRock

The best beginner points and miles card out there.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

With great travel benefits, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game. Here are the top 5 reasons it should be in your wallet, or read our definitive review for more details.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred named "Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption" - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, June 2018
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
  • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
17.99% - 24.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$0 Intro for the First Year, then $95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent Credit

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.