In November 1975, I was Manager of Publicity for Continental Airlines, in our corporate HQ at LAX. As a lifelong aviation aficionado, and an even more proud American citizen (I was born in London!) I’ve always been intensely interested in American politics, and so knew that our president (whoever it is) today always flies aboard an impressive, specially equipped B-747. Back then Air Force One was a B-707, tail number 26000. On both sides’ of the fuselage, in large letters, it said UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The public knew it as Air Force One. I was thrilled when I discovered that anytime it flew to Los Angeles with the president, the aircraft parked at Continental’s hangars. Because Continental’s PR team was always involved in working with the media when Air Force One came into LAX, I got to know the Secret Service guys who played a major role in these visits.
As time went on I developed a kinship with one of them (I still have his business card) and each time the aircraft came to LAX, I felt he “trusted” me more and more. So, I plucked up my courage and said, “The next time AF One flies into LAX, could I get a tour inside?”
He said YES!
In the Fall of 1980, AF One flew in with President Reagan and, along with Al Feldman, the new CEO of Continental, we got to take a tour inside one of the most famous airplanes in the world. As we stood at the bottom of the steps to go on the aircraft, there was a big, hefty looking USAF Master Sergeant who, in a loud voice and in VERY firm tones, said “Do not take anything once you get on board. We’ll give you a Gift Pack before you leave.”
There were several things that surprised me. After entering by the door nearest the nose, and immediately by the right hand side, there is a sort of huge keyboard with the telephone connections to most of the world’s key leaders. I’d expected there’d be some sort of bedroom. There wasn’t. I also noticed, as we headed towards back of the ‘plane, it got less comfortable. We were told “that’s the media section.”
It was THIS B-707 – tail number 26000 – that flew Kennedy to Dallas in 1963. It was referred to as Air Force One when the president was aboard and, at other times as SAM 26000. Costing $8 million back then, she entered service in 1962, and was used by President Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. On March 24th, 1998, the plane was retired to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright Patterson AFB, near Dayton, Ohio.
As I stood in the exact spot aboard the aircraft where Johnson was sworn in as President of the USA in 1963, an eerie chill ran up and down my spine, as I visualized that now famous scene and photo. Appreciating I was actually on board THIS unique B-707, my emotions and feelings were heart tugging and “tear inducing.” Here I was standing in the same plane that President Kennedy had gone to Dallas in, but had returned to Washington in a coffin.
As a longtime travel journalist my work has taken me to 51 countries where I’ve been privileged to see and do countless “things” that many people can only dream about. However, as I toured Air Force One that day in 1980 at the LAX Continental Airlines hangar, I’d never before experienced such powerful thoughts about life, happiness and how fortunate I was, to live and work as a naturalized American citizen in this marvelous country called America. Departing this classic aircraft (with my little Gift pack!) and knowing its unique part in American history, I knew this would the most incredible experience of my life.