TOUGH & GO
The First Ever Air Force One Flies Again
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
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
The Constellation starting its engines on its way to a private company for further restoration work on 24 October 1990
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
Columbine II en route to private ownership and further restoration in 1990