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The Jet Set

For presidents, real-estate moguls and A-list movie stars
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

(continued from page 1)

The Sacred Cow lasted just a couple of years, replaced by a DC-6 that Truman named Independence after his Missouri hometown. That one lasted only seven years. The next president, Eisenhower, took delivery of a Lockheed Constellation that First Lady Mamie christened Columbine III. Like the previous propeller-driven presidential airplanes, this one had a short life. Ike traded it in for three Boeing 707s, called VC-137s in Pentagon parlance, in 1959. Their call signs—what they were referred to when the pilots communicated with air traffic control—were SAM 970, 971 and 972. SAM stood for special air mission.

After the current fleet of 747s were introduced during the first George Bush administration, the government donated the old SAMs to museums across the country. On my visit to Seattle, I realized that SAM 970, Johnson's plane when he was VP, has the most famous paint job in the world. "At the time of the Eisenhower administration, the plane had a freakish Day-Glo orange Air Force paint job," Graff says. Originally the Air Force painted "United States Air Force" on the upper fuselage, but that seemed a bit belligerent for its peaceful missions, so it was toned down to "United States of America." But the freakish Day-Glo remained. When Kennedy was in the White House, the first lady, with the help of designer Raymond Loewy, redecorated the interior in a more tasteful—and regal—blue-on-blue design. "All the later paint schemes are pretty much copies or similar versions of that same scheme," Graff says." It was definitely a hit."

But it wasn't only about fashionable interiors. According to Graff, the 707s of the presidential fleet contain a few secret weapons as well, including "electronic countermeasure" pods meant to thwart heat-seeking missiles. "It almost looks like the flywheel of a car, with the same orientation as a propeller disc," Graff says.

The government once mounted a few cameras on Ike's airliner, which was scheduled to fly to meet Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union for a 1960 summit. The cameras were so secret that Ike didn't even know about them; if the USSR discovered the cameras, Eisenhower could honestly plead ignorance. That journey was canceled, however, after the Soviets shot down a CIA spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers.

The government remains tight-lipped on the new fleet of presidential Boeing 747s, especially its defensive measures. The Secret Service wouldn't even let me get near one, no matter my repeated requests. Suffice it to say that they're the only 747s that can refuel in midair, perform onboard surgeries, and carry a couple of presidential limos in the cargo hold. "For the old ones, the 707s, it's amazing how spartan, how utilitarian, they are," Graff says. "At the same time, I wouldn't say that applies to the new 747s. They're quite extravagant."

Today, the only whistle-stop train tours you see are those of presidents seeking re-election in brief gimmicky reenactments of Truman's come-from-behind 1948 campaign victory using his same antique railroad car. The president will jump off the train and climb aboard Air Force One and fly back to Washington. The first candidate to fly was JFK, who campaigned in a 1948 American Airlines Convair 240 that dad Joe Kennedy bought for him in 1959. Mechanics stripped its 40-seat interior and installed a cushier executive cabin; JFK added his humidor and christened the plane Caroline after his young daughter. Some historians credit Caroline with getting candidate Kennedy around the country far enough and fast enough to squeak past Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. Other historians claim it was Mayor Richard Daley's grip on Cook County, Illinois. Either way, now Caroline is an exhibit in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and its interior, once in the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts, has been reunited with the fuselage.

It's no secret—well, not anymore—that JFK liked a good cigar. But he didn't like being photographed smoking one, so when you see pictures of him on the air stairs of Caroline or Air Force One and his right hand in his suit jacket, it's because he's cupping his cigar "with a smoldering butt in his pocket," Graff tells me. His suit pockets would be filled with ashes.

Like President Kennedy, Elvis Presley owned a used Convair and named it after his daughter. His was a jet, however, a twin-engine Convair 880 built in 1958. Presley purchased it from Delta Air Lines for $250,000 in 1975 and christened it the Lisa Marie. "The pride of Elvis Presley Airways," says Kevin Kern, media coordinator of Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis. Elvis pumped more than three times the purchase price into the jet to give it that special personal touch. I visited it at its home just across the street from Graceland. On the outside Elvis had it painted a patriotic red, white and blue; on the tail he had his logo painted in gold: the letters TCB, with a lightning bolt descending from the C, which stood for Taking Care of Business in a Flash.

Inside, the decor is a style you might call Mid-'70s Gaudy: The carpet is turquoise blue, and the main seating area has a green suede sofa, four brown suede chairs and a leather-top table. Every seat has a seatbelt with a gold-plated buckle. Six additional chairs in green suede, along with a television, also adorn the cabin. "[The TV] may not have worked in the air, but they had it," Kern says. And let's not forget the quadraphonic eight-track stereo system. Kern tells me Elvis's taste in music ran from rock and roll to gospel to opera. The next room, the conversation room, has a bar, six brown leather seats (also with gold-plated seatbelt buckles), another leather-top table and a green leather chair in which Elvis would sit and command the plane.

"At least command the PA system," says Kern. "It was kind of his seat of authority. That's where he would sit when he wasn't sleeping on the plane." He adds that Elvis never actually flew it himself. The entrance area could be transformed into a bedroom, but the main bedroom was situated in back, along with a bathroom with a closet, dressing table and lighted mirror ("It's almost like a makeup table," Kern says), and a separate room for the commode. Like the front bathroom, all fixtures are gold-plated, even down to the soap holder.


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