We all know about Air Force One, the most recognizable plane in the planet. But do you know about the first plane referred to as Air Force One when the president was on board?
if I told you that plane, one of the nation’s most historic planes was decaying in a desert it would be difficult to believe. But it is.
In its day, this plane, a four-engine Lockeed Constellation carried the most powerful man in the world….President Dwight Eisenhower. Now, it sits in the desert on small airfield North of Tucson.
(Timothy Coons — Caretaker.” “It’s kind of a tragedy, nobody seems to care.”
Larry Hatteberg Standup — “The old plane does have a few friends, but right now, its daily visitor is the sun and the heat and both of those things are taking a heavy toll on this historic aircraft.”
When Ike was elected president, the ‘Columbine’ became famous. Eisenhower’s wife Mamie named it after the Colorado State Flower.
There are two other Columbine Aircraft, number one and three are in museums, but this one, Columbine II is the plane Ike used in the first year of his presidency and photographic proof is abundant.
(Timothy Coons) — “This is the very first airplane that coined the term Air Force One.”
But years later, after it served the president it was lost to history. It was found when the Smithsonian traced it.
Owned by two men from Arizona it was in bad shape. They were planning to use it as an Arial sprayer, but once they became aware of its history, it was restored.
(1990 Documentary) “After a short hop from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to Bryant Field, Columbine’s crew executed a textbook landing.”
Columbine II was flown to Abilene, Kansas in 1990 to celebrate Ike’s centennial. But interest in the plane waned. In 2005 it was flown to Marana Regional Airport north of Tucson and hasn’t moved since.
So, here it sits….in the desert. Two people who love the old plane are Timothy Coons, its caretaker and Pilot Al Malecha. He was the last person to fly the aircraft.
(Al Malecha — Last Pilot) – “It breaks everybody’s heart to see it just sitting here and just getting in worse condition every day.”
Both Coons and Malecha want the plane to find a home.
(Timothy Coons) — “Here we’ve got enough stuff….If someone were to get this airplane we have enough know-how and enough spares to keep it running for another 20 years. We could do it.”
“This is like where the press would sit.”
(Timothy Coons) “This area right here is where Ike set. His mahogany desk for the president. This was his phone, press to talk, so he could make a call. At the time, this was state of the art avionics and he could call anywhere he wants.”
A comparison between Ike’s years and what the interior looks like today.
(Timothy Coons) — “This airplane needs to fly, I just went down to the baggage area to close the door, it’s just in a neglected state right now. And as I look at this eyebrow panel it was black, but look at it now.
(Al Malecha) — “I flew four different Constellations; this is the best flying airplane.”
So, with our Kansas ties to Eisenhower, could the presidential plane, currently dying in the desert, be brought to Kansas? One place it could go; Wichita’s Aviation Museum. But they simply say: “We are not in a position to participate at this time.”
So how about the City of Wichita? The new air terminal is under construction, and there is always a possibility it could be renamed to the Dwight D. Eisenhower International Airport. That would be a perfect fit.
(Carl Brewer — Wichita Mayor) “The plane needs to come back to President Eisenhower’s home and that is the state of Kansas.”
The mayor does support it, but money is the problem….who would pay for it?
“Another place to put the plane would be right here in Abilene at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.”
(Karl Weissenbach — Director — Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum – “Who would be paying for it, who would be paying for the restoration of this plane, and where would the plane be housed on the grounds?”
(Stephen F. McLean — President Eisenhower Foundation — “So with all those things, and it would be a wonderful thing to happen, but we would really have to find the right person to do that.”
In polite language, again….its about the money.
Time is not this planes friend. Until a monetary angel comes forward, the Columbine II has no future, despite its historic presidential past.