Eisenhower's Presidential Airplane Found In Storage At Marana Airport

July 19, 2013

There is a piece of presidential history parked at an Arizona airport. It is one of the first airplanes to fly President Dwight D. Eisenhower around the world in the 1950s. 

plane This is one of three Lockheed Constellation planes President Eisenhower used during the early years of his presidency in the 1950's. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

The owners want the plane restored and displayed at a museum.

Outside of Tucson at the Marana Airport, there is a silver glimmer that catches your eye. It is a large airplane standing on the desert floor. Caretaker Timothy Coons said in the 1990s the plane was found in Santa Fe, NM. by a pilot who bought it and flew it to Arizona. 

"It almost went to smelter," said Coons.

As an airplane fanatic, Coons scored his dream job. He is the mechanic who tinkers with this old airplane. 

"It's the God awfulest, most sexy airplane that was ever invented," said Coons.

He said filmmaker and aviator Howard Hughes was involved in the design of the plane that was made for commercial airlines before the president started using them. 

"This is a Lockheed Constellation. This was the presidential hauler. This was the original Air Force One," said Coons.

Before Eisenhower, President Truman used a plane, but it was not called Air Force One. Actually this aircraft in Marana is one of three promoted as the original Air Force One planes. 

The other two already have been refurbished. One is on display at a Tucson air museum, and the other is in Dayton, Ohio. President Eisenhower used all three, and each plane looks alike.  

“It has a complex design, and I tell everyone there's not a straight curve on it," said Coons.

The airplane in Marana was built in 1948, and it has a top speed of 300 miles per hour. Coons said the plane has a body shape like that of a porpoise swimming in the ocean. On the inside, it was full of presidential opulence. 

"It had some real exotic Italian marble floors in the rear, a big mahogany desk with a big red telephone. It had a nice kitchen on board in the galley," said Coons.

Plus, it had bunk beds for President Eisenhower and his secret service agents. The outside of the airplane is pretty non-descript. There is no presidential seal. It looks like a tube of brushed aluminum.  

One of the only markings you can read from the ground reads, "U.S. Air Force," painted on the underside of the wings. When Gen. Eisenhower gave this radio speech to the troops on the eve of V-Day in 1944, he probably had no idea that someday he would be Commander in Chief. 

“Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the European Expeditionary Force, you are about to embark on the first crusade towards where we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you," said Eisenhower in his speech.

The presidential plane also has the word "Columbine" painted across the nose cone. That was the favorite flower of First Lady Mamie. 

Coons walked over and pointed to the back of the plane. He looked up at a number painted on the tail and said there is a little bit of history. 

“The serial number is 86-10-4-8-6-1-0, and back in the late 50s, mid 50s, there was an Eastern Flight, 86-10. You know if you look at your tickets there’s always a flight number, well, the flight number was 86-10 which was the same as this one," said Coons.

He said the matching numbers caused confusion in the airport control tower, and there was nearly a collision between the president’s plane and the Eastern flight.  So after that the Air Force declared any aircraft the president was flying in as Air Force One, and that has stuck after all these years.  

But there is still some uncertainty about whether this plane in Marana is actually the very first plane Eisenhower used as president in the early 1950s, like the owner said it is to potential buyers. Some aviation experts have their doubts. 

"Did a president use it? Yes, did President Eisenhower use it? Yes. Is it fair to call it Air Force One, uh, I would say there are some gray lines on that," said Scott Marchand, director of Aircraft Collections and Restoration at the Pima Air and Space Museum near Tucson. 

Marchand said this plane predates the Air Force One moniker. 

“The first official use of Air Force One came in 1959 when Eisenhower was at the end of his administration,” said Marchand. 

The interior of the plane has been stripped down to the metal. A lot of the old flash is gone. There are a few dusty old seats, and it is breathtakingly hot inside the cabin, because the plane is baking in the sun.

The plane's caretaker Coons said it needs about $300,000 to $500,000 in restoration work. 

"A  little of lipstick and rouge is what I always say, and it will look beautiful again. It flew in, and it will fly right back out again." said Coons.

The owners of the plane said they are not sure what the will do if they cannot raise some money to move it out of Marana.

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