Last Updated: 7/6/2018
My White House Days - A View from the Bottom
(and a history of Presidential (Air Force One) and other VIP flight)
R.J.Ribando, Copyright 1998 - 2018 All Rights Reserved
year of my college graduation was as eventful as any in recent American
history. The siege of Khe Sanh
started in January 1968 and ran for 77 days; by the end of January the Tet
offensive had also begun, and soon after even the Wall Street Journal had
turned "dove." I remember my whole Collegetown
neighborhood erupting in cheers that late March evening when LBJ announced that
he would not run for a second full term. In April, while hunched over a
drafting table finishing up the last design project of my senior year, I heard
that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in
Maybe I should have been thrilled; after all, my draft board was the first and only entity that has ever wanted me strictly for my virile body! (I had planned on them not wanting it.) I did manage to finish the academic year, but in the meantime, not relishing spending a couple years as a Marine, I enlisted in the USAF (becoming what was called officially a "reluctant volunteer") and was accepted for Officer Training School (OTS). I left my good friends (most of the Americans were in the same situation as I was - so much for “privilege”!) and the ivory towers of Princeton in May. Following three steamy months of management and leadership training at Lackland AFB (Armstrong and Aldrin's walk on the moon was the only TV we were allowed to watch that summer and I definitely missed Woodstock) and nine months at now-closed Chanute AFB, I found myself assigned to the 89th MAWg (now the 89th Airlift Wing) at Andrews AFB (now Joint Base Andrews) just southeast of Washington. At the time I was the lowest-ranking officer who had ever been assigned to the 89th. I was treated very well right from the start - and immediately assigned a convenient parking space marked with a gold bar and "The 2nd Lt." on the sign!
We were known as "Special Air Missions" (SAM) and because we flew the President and other VIP's, a respectable number of the 27 aircraft then assigned to the 89th wound up in museums once they retired. I will concentrate here on the aircraft that were part of the fleet between 1970 and 1972 when I was there, but also provide in appendices some information I have gathered about aircraft assigned to the 89th (and its predecessor, the 1254th) before and since. A number of links are given below; there are also some photos from my personal collection. The latter are all official USAF photos, or from such open sources as Aviation Week and Space Technology. You certainly didn't take a personal camera in there! Security was very tight - the 89th Security Police were said to take delight in tackling junior officers caught without their security badges and I never tempted them.
During the time I was there most of the other 89th aircraft were repainted to look somewhat, but not exactly, like the President's aircraft. (Only the lower part of the fuselage was painted blue.) Thus many of the high resolution photos I have included here are of their earlier liveries (paint schemes) which the public affairs officer was discarding. It was also during that period that they tried to name SAM 62-6000, then the primary Presidential aircraft, "The Spirit of '76" in honor of the upcoming U.S. Bicentennial. That moniker never stuck. "Air Force One" was and still is technically a radio call sign for whatever Air Force aircraft the president is flying on, but generally denotes the president's primary aircraft.
President Ford and Mrs. Ford debarking from “The Spirit of ‘76 . Gerald Ford stumbled once on the Air Force One steps. He was labeled as “clumsy” by the press and that description stuck even though he was probably the most athletic of all our Presidents.
The people I worked with in the 89th were all
hand-picked professionals, literally the cream of the USAF. (I can't speak that
highly of all of the passengers, quite a few of whom followed up their
government service by serving time in
I must stress that this webpage is entirely unofficial. I have no affiliation with the USAF (and if they would collaborate with the producers of the goofy Air Force One movie , I'm sure they will have no objections to anything I reveal here). I do belong to the Sam Fox Association, the organization of 89th veterans, but my only constant connection with the 89th over the years has been the exchange of Christmas cards until recently with "Mrs. Robinson,", my friend and confidant.
VC-137B/C (Boeing 707)
The flagship at the time was Boeing VC-137C (707-320B) SAM 62-6000, seen below outside our hangers . This aircraft served as Air Force One through the end of the Kennedy administration, all of Johnson's plus Nixon's first term. The livery was by noted industrial stylist Raymond Loewy, designer of the Studebaker Starlight automobile (the one that looked the same from either end), the Pennsylvania Railroad paint scheme and the Ritz cracker logo, and with the active involvement of Jackie Kennedy . (A much better, airborne shot of SAM 72-7000, which is virtually identical to '6000 on the outside (but for the tail number) is reserved until later.) It was aboard '6000 that what is said to be the most widely-reproduced photo every taken aboard an aircraft - that of the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson at Love Field in Dallas with Mrs. Kennedy standing next to him still in her blood-stained dress - was taken . Yes, I did fly to and from Love Field on that aircraft - nearly a decade later. In February 1972, just a few months before I left the 89th, she flew President Nixon on his historical trip to China. Once the VC-137's were replaced by the new VC-25's as the primary presidential aircraft, '6000 was repainted in the standard fleet livery (white above with the blue chin below) and continued to fly VIP's. She retired to the Air Force Museum at Wright- Patterson AFB in May 1998 . She was repainted again in the Air Force One livery several years later.
SAM 26000 Outside the then Presidential Hangars. These hangars (repainted now in earth tones) are often seen in the background during Presidential arrivals and departures.
SAM 58-6970, (90k) a Boeing
VC- 137B , was one of three 707's bought for VIP use in 1958 . While I
was there, she served as the backup to SAM 62-6000. Then 6000 became backup to
SAM 72-7000 when the latter was delivered shortly after I left in 1972. Here
'970 is seen in an early photo with MATS
(Military Air Transport Service) markings and with turbojet (rather than
turbofan) engines. Note the "dayglo" paint
on the nose, wingtips and tail, a precaution taken, I think, as a result of the
mid-air, broad daylight collision of a UAL DC-7 and a TWA "Connie"
she never was designated the official "Presidential aircraft," she
served as Air Force One many times and saw her share of history. (Columbine
III, a Lockheed Super Constellation, retained that designation until the end of
Eisenhower's administration and a DC-6 known simply as '3240 served for the
first years of Kennedy's administration.) Without President Eisenhower's
knowledge, the CIA outfitted '970 with secret reconnaissance cameras in
preparation for his planned trip to
SAM 58-6971 is now on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum along with several other veterans of the Presidential Fleet. This aircraft used the call sign "Freedom One" twice, once in 1981 while bringing back the hostages who had been held in the U.S. embassy in Iran and then again a decade later when she brought back former POW's from Operation Desert Storm . The third of the VC-137B's (58-6972) was cannibalized for parts (including the Air Force One Simulator at the Reagan Presidential Museum) at McConnell AFB, KS  before being broken up in 1998. The latter two were set up with airline-style interiors, not the executive setup of '970.
VC-135B (Boeing Stratolifter)
Five VC-135's (62-4125, 62-4126, 62-4127, 62-4129 and 62-4130) came to the 89th beginning in 1966. The VC-135's were cargo versions of the KC-135 tanker converted to passenger use. Secretary of Defense McNamara had brought them to Andrews because, with nearly all the tankage of the KC-135 and with turbofan engines (KC-135's all had turbojet engines then; the remaining KC-135's were re-engined with JT-3D turbofan engines taken from retired civilian 707's or new CFM-56 high bypass ratio turbofans), they could fly from Joint Base Andrews to Southeast Asia (SEA) non-stop. It was easy to tell when one was on its way there; with a full load of fuel you would hold your breath a very long time while waiting to see if it would be off the ground by the end of the nearly 10,000' runway. On the way back they would often be loaded with ceramic elephants destined for the Washington GOP establishment (or if they came back via Colorado, then possibly with some Coors beer, which at that time was not available in the East).
The 135's were definitely spartan.
Sometimes referred to by the maintenance crews as "flying submarines"
or just "tubes" (the VC-137's were dubbed "supertubes")
because they had no windows, the bulkheads were originally painted plywood,
while the sleeping bunks were fabricated of square tubular iron and plywood. By
the time I got there in 1970, they had at least covered the bulkheads with
vinyl. Because the restrooms were fairly nasty (evidence perhaps that not all
of our VIP passengers were not straight-shooters), one of my first projects
with the 89th was the design of a separate facility where those
personal grooming activities that could not be accomplished with a gas mask in
place, e.g., shaving and applying makeup, could be undertaken. Just before I
left the 89th in 1972, I worked with the maintenance and operations
crews to design a completely new interior - storage, sitting areas, sleeping
quarters, galleys, etc. - for the 135's. When I came back as a civilian a few
years later, I found that all five had been renovated exactly to our
specifications - right down to such details as fabrics and carpets. While I was
there, the white "chin" was painted blue, and, to reflect the
civilian nature of the mission, "
Three of the five VC-135's (62-4130, 62-4127 and 62-4125) later flew DV missions out of Hickam AFB (now Joint Base Pearl Harbor – Hickam) in Hawaii. Like many of the KC-135 tankers, it appears that our VC-135's will fly well into the 21st century. All have been reconfigured to fly reconnaissance missions. Aircraft 62-4125, now configured as a RC-135W Rivet Joint, is seen in this recent photo . Pretty admirable to be able to make such a career switch after 36 years on the job!
VC-118 (DC-6) 53-
3240 is on display at Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, where it now
sports the same (faded) livery as Jackie Kennedy had had designed for SAM
62-6000. Even though the three VC-137B's were already in the Presidential
fleet, 3240 was actually designated the official presidential aircraft in the
early years of the Kennedy administration . Unlike the 137's it could land
at small airports, including
VC-131H (Convair 580)
short hops we had three VC-131H's, including 54-2815 (seen below, ), 54-2816
and 54-2817. Another, 55-0299, flew in occasionally for maintenance from
Bergstrom AFB in
VC-140B (Lockheed Jetstar)
Jetstar 61-2492 was the
first of eleven C/VC- 140's whose interiors we completely rebuilt in the early
1970's. (The Museum of the Air Force write-up below the picture of '492 is
wrong on the count. It says six Jetstars were
assigned to the 89th, but we definitely had eleven. Some of the confusion may
stem from the fact that before the renovation six had been designated as
VC-140's and five as C-140's, but afterwards all were identical. Indeed, it was
because of the planned renovation of all the Jetstars,
the fact that I had an engineering degree and hadn't inhaled, that landed me
each Jetstar we installed new communications gear, an
auxiliary power unit (APU) and a completely new interior including a galley and
an externally-serviced latrine - which the flight stewards much preferred to
the earlier "honey bucket". I'm sure the same goes for the "pax," including Tricia Nixon and Julie Nixon
Eisenhower (in the family photo above standing next to her husband David, for
whom Camp David was
named by his grandfather). Tricia is the blonde - I was disappointed when I
Under the hood
I had hoped to be important enough one day to be permitted an
airborne whizz in one of the latrines I had helped design and install, but
alas, the Jetstars were all retired before I became
famous. Nevertheless, I guess the reader can imagine how thrilled I was to
discover that the exact latrine on which I had labored so long and lovingly has
been preserved for future generations at the
The Jetstars were really short on range (despite the mid-wing, external fuel tanks which are more obvious in the 61-2489 picture below); thus our skilled NCO's went to remarkable lengths to make up for the weight of all the additions. (The nearly-500-pound APU installed in the tail (to provide power on the ground) was the biggest culprit.) All bulkheads were made of a lightweight, honeycomb composite. The Formica covering the bulkheads and galley (flat cut regency walnut; I remember from having specified it on dozens of drawings, done manually, of course, since there was no such thing as CAD then) was sanded down to half its original thickness to save weight. Holes were drilled out of everything non-critical. Even the mirror in the restroom was made of lightweight plastic instead of glass.
Because dimensions at altitude may be very different than those on the ground, aircraft interior design is a lot more complicated than one might imagine. Bulkheads, for instance, cannot be rigidly attached in more than one place. Designing a restroom door that will ensure privacy and open and shut easily both on the ground and at altitude can be a challenge. Legend has it that one of our aircraft was forced to make an unscheduled descent to allow the egress of the wife of a vice-president.
last step in the refurbishment of each Jetstar was
the new paint job, which involved painting a good bit of surface that had been
bare previously. Because that metal had been polished and glass-waxed so
frequently, getting the new paint to adhere was not trivial. The painting was
done at JFK by a private contractor, and the first few landed back at Andrews
having shed much of their brand new paint over
Lockheed Jetstar (VC-140) 61-2489,
one of her sister aircraft, is on display at the Pima Air Museum, while
another, 62-4201, can be visited at the Hill
Aerospace Museum. Aircraft
61-2488, which was assigned to the White House during the LBJ
administration, is on display at the
VC-6A (Beech King Air)
Our lone VC-6a, which was once known as the "Lady Bird Special" in honor of its most regular user, made it to the Air Force Museum.
C-124C (Douglas Globemaster II)
I couldn't resist including a photo of a C-124C Globemaster . My unit didn't fly them, but in case of an attack, the AF Reservists from the other side of the base were supposed to lumber over in their 124's to take us and our equipment and spares to a secret safe haven, fortunately at just 200 knots , not very far away. Our own aircraft would carry the VIP's.
As of October 2011, ten of our assigned aircraft are permanently displayed in museums, while six are still flying. I suppose now you want some dirt on the passengers. (The book listed below  by J.F.terHorst, Gerald Ford's press secretary and Col. Ralph Albertazzie, Nixon's personal pilot, is billed as "The gossip-filled story of the highest office in the United States," and does contain far more than I can provide.) I would be less than honest to leave you with the impression that I worked that closely with the president's own aircraft. SAM 62-6000 (AF#1), 58-6970 (AF#1 backup), and VC-140 #61-2493 (AF-2) were maintained and operated by a separate Presidential flight within the 89th and in fact, with only an "extended background investigation", I wasn't even allowed to board those particular aircraft without an escort.
only real "dirt" I remember hearing about the "old man"
himself was how he would put his freshly polished shoes up on the very
expensive upholstery. The flight stewards would try to put a towel between
shoes and upholstery; he would get angry and pull it out. Contrast that to this
shoe polish vignette published recently about our 16th president : "A
diplomat, visiting the White House, was surprised to find Abraham Lincoln
shining his shoes. 'Mr. President,' exclaimed the diplomat. 'Do you black your
own shoes?' 'Yes,' answered
spring of 1972 it was time to move on. I had already learned more than I would
have had I spent the time at
With the winding down of the war, the Air Force was anxious to get rid of excess manpower. I was discharged and left the nation's capital on Memorial Day weekend of 1972. That traditional first weekend of summer had seemed pretty quiet, but some weeks later we heard that on that particular weekend a group of operatives working on behalf of the CREEP (standing here for the Committee to ReElect the President and not the more recent "Big Creep") had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex. On their first incursion they bungled the installation of the "bugs" they had intended to plant; several weeks later while trying to rectify the bugs, they bungled the break-in itself and were caught. Two years of stone-walling and lies finally ended when Nixon resigned in August of 1974.
I remember a discussion I had with my boss well before leaving in which he reminded me that we did not fly an individual, but "an American institution." Thus our aircraft would continue to gleam no matter who the passengers were or how they behaved. That policy still is operative.
Of course you know that you should view anything you read online with skepticism), so you're probably justified in assuming I made all this up. In fact, I really was there, most of the above is true and below is proof! The colors are pretty faded from hanging on my various office walls for the past twenty-plus years, but it still brings back some good memories.
people have asked why I waited so long to write this document. On the serious
side first, most
Appendix I: 89th Aircraft that had come and gone before I arrived (pre-1970)
Appendix II: 89th Aircraft that were delivered after I Left (post-1972)
e-mail: rjr at virginia dot edu.