In the hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Air Force One became the center of gravity in American government.
The historic, globe-spanning Boeing 707 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force has stories no other aircraft can tell, said Jeff Underwood, the museum’s historian.
The blue and white presidential aircraft carried the body of the fallen leader after he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas back to the Washington, D.C. area on Nov. 22, 1963. Before the plane left Love Field, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States.
The plane, officially designated VC-137C, served more than three decades in the presidential fleet before it was flown on one last mission to the museum in May 1998.
“This aircraft tells so many stories and encompasses so much American history, Air Force history, air power history, world history, that it’s absolutely one of the most important American artifacts for the American people and for the world,” Underwood said.
History records Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin that fired three rifle shots at the president from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas while Kennedy rode in the back seat with the first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in a convertible Lincoln limousine in Dealey Plaza.
The president’s sudden death shocked the world, and for those around Kennedy chaos and fears of whether the assassination was a prelude to an attack on the nation, or something else, swirled that day, Underwood said.
Would an assassination attempt be made against the vice president? Was it the start of a nuclear attack on the United States? Was the mob connected to killing the president? No one knew, but they wanted to be prepared for anything, he said.
The jet was a haven for government leaders to formally begin a transition of power and plan for the administration of a new president.
Built for the president
Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000, the intercontinental plane assembled in 1962 with an American flag on the tail, was the first specifically built to transport the president, Underwood said. The aircraft with an unrefueled range of more than 6,000 miles traveled on a journey of more than 5 million miles over the years.
Kennedy flew aboard the four-engine plane to Berlin for his famous speech to hundreds of thousands declaring his solidarity with the German city after the Berlin Wall rose, and to visit his ancestral homeland in Ireland. Emblazoned with “United States of America” on both sides of the jet, President Richard M. Nixon flew aboard the plane to China in 1972, the first time a U.S. president visited the People’s Republic of China.
The jet carried Johnson to visit U.S. troops in Vietnam and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Paris for secret talks to end the war in Vietnam.
Former presidents Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter rode aboard the aircraft to the state funeral of slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat in 1981.
The aircraft carried the bodies of Johnson and Nixon and former first lady Mamie Eisenhower after their deaths, the historian said.
The jet was a back-up to the primary Air Force One after 1972. In January 1998, an aircrew flew the plane to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., airport to pick up President Bill Clinton when the Air Force One jet in service that day, another Boeing 707, became mired in mud, according to Dayton Daily News archives.
Vice President Al Gore made the final, official flight in March 1998 before the plane came to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The Boeing 707 set 30 speed records, including the fastest, non-stop flight between Washington, D.C, and Moscow in May 1963.
But the plane will always be remembered most for that fateful flight to Love Field in Dallas, where the nation’s history changed in moments.
When Col. James Swindal, the pilot, got word of the assassination, he ordered the aircraft to be topped off with fuel. He cut the air conditioning to conserve power and left the engines running on the tarmac for a quick take-off.
Members of the presidential detail removed four seats in the rear of the plane and cut out part of the bulkhead to make room for the president’s casket.
“The aircrew simply refused to put the president’s body in the cargo hold,” Underwood said.
Sid Davis was a Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. radio reporter who was in the presidential motorcade and aboard Air Force One where he witnessed Johnson become president.
When the 34-year-old Youngstown, Ohio, native climbed the front stairs to Air Force One, the aircraft was awash in grief. “It was a very sad occasion,” he said in an interview from Bethesda, Md. “The Kennedy staff naturally were in tears. The mascara on the cheeks of the Kennedy women were streaked.”
Johnson had phoned the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to ask him if he should be sworn in aboard the plane or back in Washington.
After consulting with cabinet leaders, and seeking to send a message of continuity of government, Johnson decided to be sworn in aboard Air Force One.
He called for federal district judge Sarah T. Hughes to swear him in, who raced to the jet while the about 40 people aboard waited.
Johnson takes the oath
In one of the most famous photographs in American political history, Johnson is surrounded by onlookers as he raises his right hand, his left hand on a Catholic missal, to take the oath of office in the cramped cabin. Jackie Kennedy stood next to Johnson. She was still wearing the pink dress streaked and stained with her husband’s blood, Davis said.
“And she was very calm,” he said. “She was in grief, there wasn’t any question about it. If you look at the official picture you can see it in her face. But she was not in shock. She knew exactly what she was doing. She accepted the invitation to come forward which I thought was historic, courageous and patriotic. I think it added something to the mood of the country because it showed she was in the room supportive of Lyndon Johnson taking over the presidency.”
In his 1971 book, “The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969,” Johnson recalled seeing long time friends and colleagues rise to their feet aboard Air Force One when they saw him that day.
“It was at that moment,” he wrote, “that I realized nothing would ever be the same again. A wall — high, forbidding, historic — separated us now, a wall that derives from the Office of the President of the United States.”
Davis clocked the oath ceremony at 28 seconds and counted 28 people as witnesses.
“President Johnson’s first words after he took the oath was, ‘Let’s get airborne,’” Davis said.
Johnson then took the first steps to set up a cabinet to govern the executive branch and with his staff drafted a few brief sentences to console a traumatized nation once the plane landed.
Jackie Kennedy sat next to the late president’s casket for the flight home, and never left it.
“This is the place where the chaos became extremely personal,” Underwood said.
Davis had left the jet to report of the transition in power, but couldn’t leave until the plane took off because the police had locked down Love Field. He watched as Air Force One revved its engines, rolled down the runway next to him, and went airborne.
“The impressive United States of America emblazoned on the fuselage can hardly be missed and you can’t hardly not see that and be moved by what you see,” he said. “Lyndon Johnson, the new president of the United States, and the fallen leader in a casket at the rear of the aircraft with a grieving widow. That’s never happened in U.S. history. Every assassination has been different. But this one was unbelievable, and tragic.”
Nina Serafino, 65, of Washington, D.C., visited the plane on a recent trip to the Air Force museum.
She was a 15-year-old teenager sitting in a high school chemistry class in Stamford, Conn., when the news Kennedy had been shot suddenly arrived for everyone to hear.
“The announcement came over the loudspeaker and we just sat there stunned,” she said.
“And I think we had the next two days off school. The day of the funeral we had off school, and we sat in front of our television and listed to the drumbeat (during the funeral procession in Washington),” she said. She felt “incredible sadness.”
Seeing the presidential aircraft, the decades-old memories came back. “Your heart beats,” she said.