Last Updated: 1/2/2012
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 - 2012 All Rights Reserved
year of my college graduation was probably 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
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 and
the ivory towers of
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 young 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.
Click on the image for an enlarged view (jpg at 26k ).
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 annually with "Mrs. Robinson," (32k), 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 (107k) 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 .
Click on the image for an enlarged view (jpg at 97k).
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 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" over the
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 AAFB 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 - as noted on their cans).
Click on the image for an enlarged view (jpg at 94k, ).
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
VIP's are 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, "
of the five VC-135's (62-4130, 62-4127 and 62-4125) later flew DV missions out
of Hickam AFB in
VC-118 (DC-6) 53-
3240 is on display at Pima Air and
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
Click on the image for an enlarged view (jpg at 146k).
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 Air Force Museum 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 the cushy
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 standing next to her husband David, for whom Camp David was
named by his grandfather). Tricia is the blonde - I was disappointed when I
Click on the image for an enlarged view (jpg at 207k).
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.
Click on the image for an enlarged view (jpg at 15k).
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
Click on the image for an enlarged, color view (jpg at 28k, ).
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.
Click on the image for an enlarged, color view (jpg at 300k).
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 on the Internet 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.
Click on the image for an enlarged view (jpg at 597k).
Some 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)