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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

Walking up to the old Air Force One at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, my first thought is, it's smaller than I thought it would be. That's usually my first impression of any object of weighty historical significance, such as Mount Vernon, the Empire State Building, Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose, even a Second World War—era B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.

As I slowly ascend the air stairs, my brain automatically hums "Hail to the Chief." Cory Graff, the museum's exhibits research and development manager, greets me at the top of the air stairs, just outside the jet's door, where three decades of American presidents paused and waved for their photo-ops. Being in the presence of the former presidential chariot begs a question: can the average person actually own and fly an airliner? Not likely, unless you are exceptionally wealthy.

Elvis Presley owned an airliner, John F. Kennedy, too, and so did Hugh Hefner, until he sold his and settled down on the West Coast. Donald Trump still has his, and John Travolta not only owns one, but he also flies it himself—from his airport-terminal-size house. The average person can purchase one fresh off the factory floor, but he'd need at least a million dollars.

I've learned visiting Gulfstream's manufacturing facility that people who build and fly big planes remain tight-lipped about them. When the airplane's in a museum and the owner's in the graveyard, it's a different story, but while it's still flying and the owner's still walking, you just can't get the details about the luxurious interiors and modifications. That's probably so Joe Burglar won't shimmy through a window and jimmy off the gold-plated bathroom fixtures.

By visiting Gulfstream's manufacturing facility I've learned that people who build and fly big planes remain tight-lipped about them. When the airplane's in a museum and the owner's in the graveyard, it's a different story, but while it's still flying and the owner's still walking, you just can't get the details about the luxurious interiors and modifications. That's probably so Joe Burglar won't shimmy through a window and jimmy off the gold-plated bathroom fixtures.

That's why Trump has cleverly camouflaged his personal airliner as your run-of-the-mill, shiny black-and-white 727 with a massive maroon T on the tail and a huge TRUMP written in gold letters on the fuselage. The Donald purchased it used from American Airlines, and had to sell it in 1991 when his fortune evaporated. After getting back on his feet, he bought back the Boeing jet, probably before some new owner could change the gold-plated bathroom fixtures.

While it's no problem for today's business titan to buy his own private airliner, that wasn't always the case. It wasn't until after the Second World War, when the United States became flooded with surplus military aircraft, that private airline travel took off. One could buy a Douglas C-47, otherwise known as a DC-3, for as little as $10,000. (Sounds cheap now, but the average annual salary in 1945 was $2,900.) This was true for any style of bomber, from North American B-25s and Martin B-26s to Consolidated B-24s, which were going to be chopped up and melted down anyway. Pretty soon a select few purchased airliners. Now all that was needed was a flight crew and a custom interior.

Back to Air Force One: once I step inside the old jet, the most striking feature is it's tiny, even compared with the cramped interiors of today's coach sections. I have to turn sideways to maneuver down an aisle packed with communications gear. Then, too, the decor is spartan. Where's the luxury? Where are the plush leather couches I'd always imagined? Well, spartan is exactly the way President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted it. "He was more of a simple guy," says Graff. "They [the executive fleet] are kind of utilitarian." Most of the seats and carpet are a grayish blue, perhaps faded from time. The walls are beige, and the bulkheads and furniture abound with fake, dark wood-colored laminate.

We head up to the middle of the plane, which was Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson's headquarters. A fold-down table sits next to a couch where government types could talk and negotiate or just listen to Johnson badmouthing Kennedy. Graff tells me that the table could be raised and lowered, and legend has it that Johnson liked it raised to intimidate people. Johnson also had a hydraulic seat installed so he could lift himself above the level of everyone else. Nearby is the stateroom, where the dignitary relaxed, and attached to that is a bathroom modified by Jackie Kennedy with special lighting and makeup drawers. In later years, Hillary Clinton got stuck inside and had to be rescued by crew members through a valet closet next door.

Presidential planes date back at least to the early 1940s. To avoid German U-boats in 1943, Franklin Delano Roosevelt flew to Casablanca in a Boeing 314 flying boat once used to take travelers to coastal destinations. FDR enjoyed it so much that he soon received a special converted B-24 Liberator called Guess Where To?, which was equipped with a special, secret elevator to deal with his wheelchair. After an unexplained crash in the same style of airplane the following year, FDR traded it in for a Douglas DC-4 called the Sacred Cow. He flew in it only once; after his death in April 1945, Harry S. Truman took it over.


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