Top 5 Most Presidential Aircraft at Pima

These planes preserved at Pima Air & Space Museum were issued iconic call signs like Air Force One, Marine One, and Air Force Two. Some used unique call signs like Army One and Freedom One. Whoever the VIP was for these particular aircraft, we’re glad to have helped keep the history alive. 

5. Bell HH-1N Twin Huey

Here’s the story of bureau number 158554. In the presidential category, it’s the most recent addition to the collection, the last to carry a POTUS passenger, and the only one not displayed in VIP transport configuration.

Hueys first flew in 1958 and became famous for their use in Vietnam. The “N” model first flew in 1969 with an additional engine, longer cabin, and greater carrying capacity. This Twin Huey was one of six VH-1Ns assigned to Marine Experimental Helicopter Squadron 1 (HMX-1). Much like the USAF’s Air Force One, USMC helicopters carrying the president get the call sign Marine One, which was the case for 158554 with Presidents Reagan and Bush. The historical photo shows this Twin Huey on its assignment to transport Reagan at the G7 Summit in Venice, Italy.

Following its HMX-1 assignment throughout the 80s, it was converted to HH-1N by removal of the VIP interior, and installation of the standard sliding doors and rescue hoist. It became a search and rescue helicopter at the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma that served downed pilots, hikers, campers, boaters, and even Boy Scouts. It’s unique history went from carrying the most powerful man in America to those in need of rescue in powerless moments. In 2020, it was retired as the last Twin Huey in USMC service and loaned to us by the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

Marine One in Italy

HH-1N at MCAS Yuma

Now On Display

4. Lockheed VC-121A Constellation

As opposed to number 5, this aircraft in the is the oldest plane on the list. It’s the only one that didn’t have a POTUS passenger, at least not yet. But its impact paved the way for the iconic call sign itself. Here’s the story of Ike’s original “Columbine” and how Air Force One came to be.

This Lockheed VC-121A Constellation, serial number 48-614, entered Air Force service in 1949 and began hauling cargo from Massachusetts to West Germany in support of the Berlin Airlift. It was assigned to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1951 when he was the Commander of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe (SHAPE). Before “I like Ike”, Ike liked his Connie and it was christened “Columbine” after his wife’s home state flower.

He picked Connies for his planes as president too. The next one, “Columbine II”, was serial number 48-610. One day there was confusion with its call sign Air Force 8610 with a nearby commercial flight Eastern Airlines Flight 8610. To avoid this mistake, the Air Force One call sign was used moving forward to identify the commander-in-chief’s flight. And that’s how Ike’s affiliation for the VC-121 that began with this Connie led to the distinguished moniker.

3. Sikorsky VH-34C Choctaw

The Sikorsky VH-34C Choctaw comes in at number 3 for the “Top 5 Most Presidential Aircraft at Pima.” It was one of the very first helicopters in the Army’s Executive Flight Detachment in 1958. Being in the first fleet of presidential helicopters puts VH-34C serial number 57-1684 in a very elite class.

President Eisenhower was the first president to fly in a helicopter on July 12, 1957. It wasn’t long before he had his own fleet of helicopters with the Army and Marines, a job the Marines handle exclusively now. “57-1684” remained in this role during Kennedy and Johnson’s presidency as well and likely flew them, but we do not have anything to confirm this. There is proof for Eisenhower as shown. His contribution to aviation for the White House is clear by initiating official rotary wing transport but also, as previously described, he was the first to use call sign Air Force One.

Eisenhower with Family and 57-1684

57-1684 on Display

Eisenhower with Charles de Gaulle and 57-1684

2. Boeing VC-137B “Freedom One”

The Boeing VC-137B comes in at number 2 of the “Top 5 Most Presidential Aircraft at Pima” for flying with call signs Air Force One, Air Force Two, and Freedom One. Although not the first jet-powered airliner, the Boeing 707 is easily the most successful of the first-generation jet airliners introduced at the end of the 1950s. The first 707 prototype flew in 1957 with the type entering airline service in 1958. The plane quickly came to dominate the long-range air travel market, pushing out earlier propeller driven airliners and overshadowing competitor’s jets. In 1959, the U.S. Air Force purchased three off-the-shelf 707s for use as VIP transports. Modifications to the aircraft were limited to interior fittings and military radio equipment.

We have photos showing Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy making VC-137, 58-6971, an “Air Force One” but its “Freedom One” call sign brings home the true spirit of the aircraft when it brought back 52 American hostages from Iran stateside after 444 days of captivity in 1981 and 10 years later it returned American POWs after Desert Storm in 1991. Finally, months before its retirement in 1998, it carried Vice President Al Gore as “Air Force Two” completing the ultimate triple-crown of call signs. Check out our video through the button below with an interior walk-through if you just can’t get enough Freedom (One).

58-6971 with Kennedy

58-6971 With Eisenhower

“Freedom One” Returning Iranian Hostages

“Freedom One” Returning Desert Storm POWs

“Freedom One” on Display

“Freedom One” on Display

1. Douglas VC-118A “Air Force One”

Number 1 on the “Top 5 Most Presidential Aircraft at Pima” is the Douglas VC-118A Liftmaster. The C-118 is a militarized version of the Douglas DC-6 airliner. Just over 100 C-118s were acquired for use by the Air Force as passenger and cargo transport. The main difference between the military and civil versions is the installation of a large cargo door on the left side of the aircraft.

This aircraft was delivered to the Air Force in VIP configuration in 1955. It was selected as the primary Presidential Aircraft in 1961 for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson until the VC-137 took over the role. It took on other assignments until 1975, often carrying high ranking officials between Europe and D.C. VC-118, serial number 53-3240, remains the last propeller powered aircraft to be designated as the primary Presidential transport. See the video with all the details through the button below.

Johnson with 53-3240

Kennedy with 53-3240

53-3240 on Display

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