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VC-54C Sacred Cow

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to the Casablanca Conference in 1943 on board a commercial Boeing 314 Clipper Ship, he became the first U.S. president to fly while in office. Concerned about relying upon commercial airlines to transport the president, the USAAF leaders ordered the conversion of a military aircraft to accommodate the special needs of the Commander in Chief.

After encountering difficulties with converting a C-87A transport, the USAAF arranged with Douglas Aircraft to construct a new transport aircraft specifically for presidential use. Nicknamed the Sacred Cow, this VC-54C became the first military aircraft to transport a U.S. president when President Roosevelt took it to the USSR for the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

The first purpose-built aircraft to fly the president of the United States, the Sacred Cow is the only VC-54C ever constructed. To an untrained eye, it looks like any other C-54, but the Sacred Cow is unique. Beginning with a C-54A fuselage and C-54B wings, Douglas made numerous modifications. For example, the ailerons are different from any B model. Furthermore, the Sacred Cow underwent extensive interior modifications. One special feature is an elevator behind the passenger cabin to lift the president in his wheelchair in and out of the plane -- an otherwise difficult procedure. The passenger compartment includes a conference room with a large desk and a bulletproof picture window.

No president of the United States had sported an official airplane before Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And in 1943, there was considerable debate as to whether the chief executive of the United States should fly. However, Roosevelt had a flair for the dramatic. He was the first US president to visit the continent of Africa and the first president since Abraham Lincoln to visit a battle theater in time of war. None before him had ever left the US in time of war.

The first airplane flight of a US president took place on 11 January 1943. The plane was a Pan American flying boat, the flight was from the Dinner Key Seaplane Base in Miami to the Casablanca Conference in northern Africa.

Later that year, classified documents known as Project 51 were sent from Washington, D.C., to the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California. Approximately nine months later, on 12 June 1944, the "Cow" was born. On that date, the first presidential aircraft was flown from the Douglas Plant in Santa Monica to National Airport, Washington, D.C. It was a four engine, propeller driven, C-54 airplane. No one ever expected that the official aircraft of the president of the United States would be called the Sacred Cow. It might have been christened The Flying White House except for irreverent Washington newspaper correspondents, Official attempts to discourage use of the name Sacred Cow as "undignified" were to little avail. The name was never painted on the airplane, nor was the name ever officially accepted. From the beginning to the end, however, it was known as the Sacred Cow.

There were problems in designing the president's plane because President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been stricken with polio at age 31, could walk only with crutches. He could not climb the steps of the plane. Designers considered that it would be totally inappropriate to carry the most important man in the world on and off his plane like a baby. If designers used long ramps for his wheelchair, it would foretell his arrival wherever he traveled. For these reasons, Project 51 provided for a battery-operated elevator, located aft of the main passenger cabin, which could lift a passenger directly from the ground to the cabin-floor level of the aircraft.

More than that, the interior of the plane was laid out so that Roosevelt could move easily to all parts of the cabin in his wheelchair. A removable set of inclined rails allowed him to be rolled up to the cockpit between the pilot and copilot. The president's private stateroom measured 71/2 x 12 feet. Among the special furnishings was an upholstered swivel chair which was within easy reach of an oxygen mask, reading lights, and a telephone to the pilot's compartment. At that time, air-to-ground telephone service was not in use; nor was the plane pressurized. A conference table was in the middle of his stateroom, while on one side were four maps on rollers. There were also enlarged flying instruments, including an air speed indicator, an altimeter, a compass, and a clock. There was no air conditioning, so an electric fan perched atop a cabinet.

A large bulletproof window was an additional feature of this section of the plane. Ironically, although this window would afford protection against an assassin's bullet, the surrounding skin of the aircraft would hardly have stopped an ice pick.

President Roosevelt used the Sacred Cow only once before his death in April 1945; however, the Sacred Cow remained in presidential service during the first 27 months of the Truman Administration. On July 26, 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 while on board the Sacred Cow. This act established the Air Force as an independent service, making the Sacred Cow the "birthplace" of the USAF.

The USAF later assigned it to other transport duties. Among its passengers had been Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Hoover, and Eisenhower, as well as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Winston Churchill, Dr Edward Benes of Czechoslovakia, and General Skorshi of Poland. Theodore J. Boselli had been her navigator. The airplane was retired in October 1961. Upon retirement of the Sacred Cow on 4 December 1961, the ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, resembled the pomp and military customs of the retirement of a general from active duty.

In 1983 the Sacred Cow was shipped by truck to the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The monumental task of restoring the aircraft began in August 1985, and it took 10 years and more than 34,000 hours of work to complete. This aircraft is located in the Presidential Gallery on a secure part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Appearing as it did during President Roosevelt's trip to Yalta, the Sacred Cow provides a wonderful exhibit for visitors and a superb example of the craftsmanship, skill and perseverance of the museum's Restoration Division staff and volunteers.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:39:10 ZULU