Tuesday, April 22, 2008


What would you think if you stumbled upon "Air Force One" sitting forlornly in a field scattered with the debris and remnants of half a dozen derelict aircraft from the 1950s?
Welllllllll, welcome to my world.
OK, I never said that it was going to be THIS President's "Air Force One," did I? No.
However, you
are staring at "Air Force One." In fact, this was the FIRST official Air Force One, ever. The one that established that call sign. And it is just sitting in a field in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, slowly (it seems to me) losing it's tenuous grip on its existence.
Alright, a little history is in order. I went to the Marana Regional Airport to see some WW2 vintage bombers (see my previous post. They were teriffic!) I was chatting with a very nice guy (Carl, a retired Delta pilot) who was sitting under the wing of the B-17
(he's the pilot of the B-29 from this group but as the B-29 wasn't there, Carl's main order of business was to get out from under the hot sun). After talking about many aviation and non aviation subjects, Carl points way yonder and says, there sits President Eisenhower's former Air Force One. Now, I happen to know, that's not possible. Why? Because that Air Force One was sitting at the Pima Air & Space Museum, about 40 miles due south of here. Carl responds with, "Aha, so you didn't know that Ike had THREE Air Force Ones?"
So, I jumped in my car and bumped down the road to the gate that Carl said was closed. The gate was open. No one around. An accidental push on the gas and I'm suddenly behind the gate on a dirt and gravel road. A quick turn to the right and..... There it was. Unmistakable. It was Air Force One. Ike's Air force One.
How was I so certain? See that yellow blob under the cockpit of the beautiful, shiny Lockheed c-121 Tri Star Constellation? That there blob spells out "Columbine." The name that Ike's wife chose as the name for their official plane. Wanna see the clincher?
OK, I know you really can't see this on line (unless you put your cursor on the above picture and left click. That'll really blow the picture up.) So trust me here. Just above the nose wheel is a number printed on the nose gear door. That number says 8610. The tail number of one of Ike's three planes was 48-610. No doubt about it, this is the plane. This is the Air Force One that carried Ike from January 1953 to November 1954. The one that took Ike 18,000 miles on a secret mission to Korea. And the one that was first to be called "Air Force One" (the reason: An Eastern Air Lines flight # 8610 was confused with Ikes 8610 and was mistakenly given permission to fly into the restricted air space around Ike's plane. That probably really disturbed Ike's security folks and from that incident forward, every President's plane was always referred to as Air Force One.) In fact this plane is Columbine Numer Two. Number one is the one sitting at the Pima Air & Space Museum (a wonderful place if you love aircraft of all vintages.) Number three? I don't think that it exists any more, although I'm not sure. There are VERY few Constellation Tri Stars in existence now. This plane's journey to a small patch of sandy earth in a backwater regional airport is quite long. I'll shorten it (as much as I'm able to-it's not in my nature to take the short way.)
After 1968, it was grounded and was stripped of any and all markings (other than 8610) to denote its historic past. It was slowly stripped of parts to keep other Tri Stars in service. In the 1970s, the plane was sold to a crop dusting company, along with 4 sister planes. Columbine was the only one that wasn't refurbished to fly and again was used for her spare parts.
In 1980, the owner of the company received one of those phone calls that can only be described as, "you've got be kidding me." The call was from the Smithsonian in Washington asking him if he knew of his plane's history? Well, he felt terrible, but what could he do? He stopped using its parts for spares. In 1990, this man decided that he was going to scrap the plane. Over a cup of coffee he and his partner changed their minds and decided Columbine deserved a better fate and vowed they would fully restore her. After her restoration, she proceeded to participate in several air shows and in 1998 was put up for auction, hopefully to an air museum. The asking price was $1.5. The best bid was $1.4. The plane was withdrawn from the auction. It was then flown to New Mexico and sat for a number of years. Then refurbished again for the flight to Marana, where it sits today. It's obviously been used for parts again. The rumor has it that the plane is for sale. For $3.5m. I'd say, it'd be a shame for this plane to sink into the Arizona desert. It's really an historic aircraft.

Anyone have any spare change?
One last picture of Columbine and my baby (in car years, it might be nearly as old as Columbine.)

Maybe one more aviation post to come. After I took this picture from the gravel road, I turned around and caught a glimpse of an aircraft that got my heart a thumpen.... Later.


Brett said...

Well done! But why wasn't the roof down?

Leigh said...

The roof was up for the same reason that Carl (the retired Delta pilot) was sitting under the wing of the B-17. That sun was hot!

James Boehme said...

Great shots. I have one question...How do you know all of this?

Leigh said...

I did a couple of hours research on the internet. It's amazing, but if you know the tail number of an aircraft, you can find out an amazing amount of history about it. It was fun.

Anonymous said...

there is a connection between the powerful planes and the beautiful hummingbirds-both fly in the sky-something I would love to do!!! fly-fly flyxxxxxxxxxxlove ya, Anme

Monica Surfaro Spigelman said...

a very great story of serendipity. can you imagine being allowed so close to priceless history, and pulling your car next to it, too? There are many little secrets like this across the west, one of the reasons I like it here. I hope you print this out and return to the airfield to give a copy to Carl, he should have it. (almost forgot, great pix!)

stevesurf said...

Leigh - Sticky this thread and picture!!!