TOUGH & GO

The First Ever Air Force One Flies Again

Jetgala - - CONTENT - by Steve Slater

FOR SOME­THING SO FA­MOUS, THE AIR FORCE ONE — STRICTLY SPEAK­ING — DOES NOT EX­IST. The world-fa­mous ti­tle is merely a ra­dio call sign, ap­plied to any USAF air­craft on which the sit­ting Pres­i­dent of the United States is trav­el­ling. The name came af­ter a near-col­li­sion in De­cem­ber 1953 be­tween an air­craft car­ry­ing US Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower, des­ig­nated Air Force 8610, and a com­mer­cial air­liner with flight num­ber 8610. An over­worked air traf­fic con­troller con­fused the two and sent them into the same airspace — a mis­take that proved al­most fa­tal. The unique Air Force One call sign was thus cre­ated to en­sure such a blun­der could never hap­pen again.

It was in the late 1940s that the pres­i­den­tial trans­ports be­gan to gain in­di­vid­ual names. Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man named his trans­port In­de­pen­dence af­ter his home­town in Mis­souri. In turn, his suc­ces­sor Eisen­hower named his Lock­heed VC-121E Con­stel­la­tion air­craft the Columbine I and Columbine II, af­ter the state flower of his wife’s home state, Colorado. It was the Columbine II that fig­ured in the 1953 near-col­li­sion.

EN­GI­NEERS WORKED FOR A YEAR IN THE BLIS­TER­ING HEAT TO PUT IT BACK IN FLY­ING CON­DI­TION

The Columbine II had spe­cial fea­tures, such as ad­di­tional sound­proof­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment, mar­ble floor­ing in the pres­i­den­tial area, and a ma­hogany desk where Eisen­hower wrote the fa­mous Atoms For Peace speech that he de­liv­ered to the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly in 1953. The Pres­i­dent used the air­craft ex­ten­sively, in­clud­ing fly­ing to Korea to meet troops sta­tioned there. In 1962, it was rel­e­gated to sec­ondary du­ties when the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion pur­chased two VC-137 Stra­to­lin­ers, mod­i­fied long-range Boe­ing 707 jets.

The pis­ton-en­gine Columbine II has proved a re­mark­able sur­vivor. Built at Lock­heed’s fac­tory in Burbank, Cal­i­for­nia in 1948, it was al­ready 20 years old when it was re­tired to the Davis-Mon­than Air Force Base for stor­age in the late 1960s. The air­craft was later sold to Mel Christler, a Wy­oming busi­ness­man who owned a crop-dust­ing and fire-bomb­ing busi­ness, us­ing old mil­i­tary air­craft and air­lin­ers to drop fire­sup­press­ing chem­i­cals on wild­fire.

Christler ear­marked the Columbine II as a source of spare parts, unaware of its his­tory un­til he re­ceived a call from the

Smith­so­nian In­sti­tute in 1980. He and his part­ner, Harry Oliver, then par­tially re­stored it in 1989 and flew it at a num­ber of air shows for the next few years, but the cost of main­te­nance even­tu­ally proved be­yond their means. In 1998, the air­craft was flown to Marana Re­gional Air­port, Ari­zona, where it lan­guished for more than a decade, await­ing sale.

In the fall of 2014, a pilot-en­tre­pre­neur named Karl Stoltz­fus Sr. read an ar­ti­cle about the Columbine II and how it would be used for scrap me­tal if not moved soon. Within weeks, Stoltz­fus pur­chased the air­craft through his com­pany, Dy­namic Avi­a­tion, a busi­ness spe­cial­is­ing in air­borne data ac­qui­si­tion, pest con­trol and fire man­age­ment. De­ter­mined to fly the air­craft back to Vir­ginia, Stoltz­fus brought a team of en­gi­neers to the Ari­zona desert, where they worked for a year in the blis­ter­ing heat to put it back in fly­ing con­di­tion. Stoltz­fus now plans to re­store the Columbine II to its for­mer pres­i­den­tial con­fig­u­ra­tion, bring­ing this unique air­craft’s story full cir­cle.

EISEN­HOWER NAMED HIS CON­STEL­LA­TION AIR­CRAFT THE COLUMBINE I AND COLUMBINE II, AF­TER THE STATE FLOWER OF COLORADO

Images by Tyson Rininger, cour­tesy of TVR Pho­tog­ra­phy Im­age by Tyson Rininger, cour­tesy of TVR Pho­tog­ra­phy

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT

A sig­nif­i­cant part of the Con­nie’s orig­i­nal in­te­rior re­mains in­tact

En­gi­neers are seek­ing in­for­ma­tion on the orig­i­nal in­te­rior seats, paint, fab­ric, and equip­ment

The air­craft was re­turned to air­wor­thi­ness for its flight from Ari­zona to Vir­ginia OP­PO­SITE PAGE

The Lock­heed VC-121E Con­stel­la­tion air­craft once owned by US Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower

Im­age cour­tesy of US De­fense Im­agery

The Con­stel­la­tion start­ing its en­gines on its way to a pri­vate com­pany for fur­ther restora­tion work on 24 Oc­to­ber 1990

Im­age cour­tesy of Ryan Berry (Ryan Berry Pro­duc­tions) and Ra­mon Pur­cell (Bone­yard Sa­fari) Im­age by Tyson Rininger, cour­tesy of TVR Pho­tog­ra­phy

LEFT

The Columbine II ar­rives at Bridge­wa­ter to­gether with the Dy­namic Avi­a­tion team, in­clud­ing com­pany founder Karl Stoltz­fus, Sr., and pilot Lockie Christler ABOVE

Find­ing in­stru­ments to re-cre­ate the orig­i­nal cock­pit will be one of the big­gest chal­lenges

Im­age cour­tesy of USAF

Columbine II en route to pri­vate own­er­ship and fur­ther restora­tion in 1990

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