The VC-137 provided transportation for the vice president, cabinet and congressional members, and other high-ranking US and foreign officials. It also served as a backup for Air Force One, the presidential aircraft. C-137 aircraft are modified B-707 aircraft with 1950's airframe technology that do not comply with FAA Stage 3 restrictions. Additionally, the FAA mandated aging aircraft inspections requirements negatively affect the maintainability and availability of the C-137 fleet. These aircraft were already expensive to fly, needing fuel stops and ground support equipment, and the resultant additional security and time required.
A Statement of Need and Operational Requirements Document was validated for replacing the C-137 with a VC-X aircraft. Therefore the 89th Airlift Wing received four new Boeing 757-200 aircraft in 1998, designated C-32A, and two Gulfstream V aircraft designated C-37A. The VC-137 aircraft were retired from the presidential airlift fleet. The C-32A is more efficient and powerful than its VC-137 predecessor.
Serving as the primary high volume, long range aircraft in the SAM fleet, these modified B-707s were normally used by Cabinet level and above officials on international missions. Although the most visible of the SAM aircraft, their 1950s technology made them the aircraft with the most shortcomings. None of these aircraft met FAA Stage III noise pollution restrictions. Therefore, due to their noise signature, numerous airports restricted or prohibited C-137 operations, and the number was increasing. Additionally, none of these aircraft complied with ICAO's Future Air Navigation System (FANS) requirements. As the FANS requirements began implementation in 1997, severe restrictions on non-compliant aircraft prohibited operations in the Minimum Navigation Performance Standard (MNPS) airspace and in the North Atlantic Track (NAT) region. These restrictions forced non-compliant aircraft out of the optimal air route and altitude structure, thereby increasing operating costs by extending flight times and fuel consumption. Finally, FAA mandated aging aircraft inspections drastically escalated the cost, maintainability, and availability of the C-137 fleet. Due to the enormous cost of these additional inspections, two C-137Bs were retired in 1996, leaving five remaining in the fleet.
The VC-137B/C Stratoliner is a modified version of the Boeing 707 commercial intercontinental airliner that, for many years, was the presidential aircraft. Today, the president's aircraft, is the VC-25A. The VC-137B/C body is identical to that of the Boeing 707, but has different interior furnishings and electronic equipment. The passenger cabin is divided into three sections:
- The forward area has a communications center, galley, lavatory and an eight-seat compartment.
- The center section is designed as an airborne headquarters with conference tables, swivel chairs, projection screen for films and two convertible sofa-bunks.
- The rear section of the cabin contains double reclining passenger seats, tables, galley, two lavatories and closets. Partitions may be placed throughout the cabin for added privacy.
The 89 AW has an enviable safety record. There has never been a mishap with the President, Vice President, or First Family on board. The Wing has flown nearly a million hours without a mishap which destroyed an aircraft or caused a fatality. The last Class A mishap occurred in 1991 when a VC-137 departed the runway after an thrust reverser malfunction. There were no serious injuries. In fact, the mishap was initially classified as a Class B; but was upgraded to Class A because of the dollar cost of the aircraft damage.
In 1962, the first jet aircraft to be specifically purchased for use as "Air Force One," a VC-137B, entered service with the tail number 26000. It is perhaps the most widely known and has the most historical significance of the presidential aircraft. Although 26000 is probably the most famous presidential aircraft, it wasn't the first to fly a president. President Roosevelt's C-54, the "Sacred Cow," President Truman's "The Independence" and President Eisenhower's aircraft "The Columbine II and III" were all called Air Force One at one time or another," said Albertazzie. "Kennedy used a VC-118, which was a propeller driven aircraft, and aircraft 970, which was the first jet aircraft to fly a president.
In May 1963 a C-137 aircraft assigned to the 89th Military Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., set 30 flying records on flights from Washington to Moscow and back. The aircraft made the trip at a speed of 561 mph in 8 hours, 39 minutes and made the return trip at 490 mph in 9 hours, 55 minutes. Fifteen records were established on each one-way trip.
Special Air Mission 26000 was brought into the inventory by President Kennedy and has played a very important role in American and world history. The aircraft was the first jet designed exclusively for presidential use. It used the call sign, "Air Force One," whenever the president was aboard. Kennedy's first flight was in November 1962 when he and the first lady attended Eleanor Roosevelt's funeral in New York. President Kennedy used aircraft 26000 when he flew to the divided East German city in June 1963 and made his famous "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech. A few months later he took the plane to Dallas. Ironically, one of the shortest flights was from Fort Worth to Dallas because Kennedy felt safe in the aircraft. SAM 26000 carried President John F. Kennedy to Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, and his body was returned to Washington, DC, following his assassination. Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office as the 36th president of the United States on board 26000 at Love Field in Dallas. This fateful aircraft also was used to return President Johnson's body to Texas following his state funeral on Jan. 24, 1973. The aircraft was used for Richard Nixon's first trip abroad to Vietnam. In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon made historic visits aboard 26000 to the People's Republic of China in February and to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in May. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger's trips to secretly meet with officials from North Vietnam were also aboard this aircraft.
Having retired from the presidential fleet in 1990, SAM 26000's paint scheme was changed to that of the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. The plane continued to fly special air missions, other than presidential, until its retirement. After making historic flights for more than three decades, presidential aircraft, SAM 26000, made its final approach into Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, 20 May 1998 to its permanent resting place at the United States Air Force Museum. The plan is to restore SAM 26000 to what it looked like during the Kennedy era. To accomplish this, the Restoration Division depends on the teamwork between Collections and Research. Collections has some Kennedy-era items and the 89th Airlift Wing has discovered a few more.
Tail number 27000, a G model VC-137, replaced 26000. When Air Force One took off from Andrews Air Force Base, on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon was president of the United States. When the plane landed in California hours later, he was a private citizen. The "black box" which contains the secret launch codes for nuclear weapons, did not accompany the president on this flight. The black box is never far from the president's side, but since Vice President Gerald Ford would be sworn in as president during the flight, the decision was made to keep it in Washington. An aircraft may only use the call sign "Air Force One" when a sitting president is aboard. This created an unusual situation for the flight because Nixon ceased to be president at 39,000 feet. Over Missouri, Air Force One radioed ground control in Kansas City that Air Force One would be changing its call sign to "SAM 27000." SAM is the military acronym for "Special Air Missions."
Tail number 27000 carved its place in history when it was used to fly former Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter to Cairo, Egypt, Oct. 19, 1981, to represent the United States at the funeral of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
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