Presidential Aircraft and Call Signs

C-87A Liberator Express, “Guess Where II”.

Okay, I’m retired Navy – but one of the places I like to pay visit to is the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.  They’re in the midst of expanding – erecting a 4th building to house the Space, Presidential Aircraft, Research & Development and Global Reach Galleries.  I’m looking forward to the opening of the new building, but seeing the latest update gave me an idea for another ramble.

Why does the military transport the President?  Well, that came about back in the early 1940s, when there became a concern with the President using commercial airlines for transportation.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first President to fly while in office, to get to a wartime conference in Casablanca – in this case, he flew aboard an Army C-54 and the Dixie Clipper, a Pan American Boeing 314 under contract to the government.  The first aircraft specifically assigned for Presidential transportation was a heavily modified B-24 Liberator that was re-designated as a C-87A Liberator Express (serial 41-24159) named “Guess Where II”. However, the President never made use of it because the Secret Service, after a review of the C-87's controversial safety record in service, absolutely refused to approve Guess Where II for presidential transportation - although the First Lady did make use of it to tour South and Central America in 1944.

There have been many aircraft that have served as Presidential transportation, currently it is the Boeing VC-25A (military [read – highly modified] version of the Boeing 747-200B airliner).  While it is commonly referred to as “Air Force One”, technically* the call sign only applies when the president is actually on board (the movie Air Force One got it right when the MC-13 changed its call sign from Liberty Two Four to Air Force One when the President was pulled on board, even if it did get some other things wrong – like the supposed existence of an escape pod).

  There is a second VC-25A for use of the Vice President, and its call sign is Air Force Two when the Vice President is aboard. 

There is a history of aircraft used as Air Force One in the VC-25A link above, but there are some Air Force aircraft that have been used that are not listed, such as the smallest aircraft designated as Air Force One - the Aero Commander U-4B, used by President Eisenhower for short trips.  It was also the first aircraft to use the distinctive blue and white paint scheme.  Other Air Force craft used for Presidential Transportation include the Beach VC-6A, North American T-39A Sabre and Lockheed VC-140B Jetstar.

The President is also transported by way of Helicopters, the first one Bell UH-13J – the Air Force version of the Bell 47J Helicopter.  President Eisenhower was the first President to fly in a helicopter off the White house lawn.  Another previously used helicopter was the UH-34 Seahorse, followed by the VH-3A Sea King.

Up until 1976, the Marine Corps and the Army shared responsibility for Presidential helicopter transportation.  Marine One is Presidential Call Sign that is also generally recognized by the public.  This indicates that the President is flying on a Marine Corps aircraft – Marine Two is used for the Vice President.

  When Army helicopters were / are used, the call sign Army One was / is for the President and Army Two for the Vice President.

Since 1976, the Marine Corps has sole responsibility for Presidential helicopter transportation, and currently uses either a VH-3D Sea King or a VH-60N "WhiteHawk".

Having covered three branches of the military, one can see the pattern…

The Navy One and Navy Two call signs are used for Navy aircraft.  There’s only been one use of the Navy One call sign – a Lockheed S-3B Viking (BuNo 159387) used to fly President George W. Bush in 2003 to USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72).

The Coast Guard One call sign has not yet been used, but Coast Guard Two was used once, when Vice President Joe Biden used a HH-60 Jayhawk in 2009 to view the Atlanta Area that was flooded.

However, if it happens that the President is using a civil aircraft, the call sign for that craft would be designated Executive One, and if it is the Vice President, then it would be Executive Two.

The only President actually in office to make use of regularly scheduled commercial airline flights since the establishment of Presidential Transportation was President Nixon in 1973 during the energy crisis (an aide carried a suitcase-sized secure communication device on board the plane, so that the President could remain in contact with Washington in the event of an emergency).  A notable exception to this was the use of a military helicopter in 2009, when it took aboard President George W Bush after his term in office had expired – the helicopter used the Executive One call sign.

On the topic of commercial air lines, if the president's family members are aboard, but not the president himself, the flight can (if it is determined by the White House staff or Secret Service to be necessary) use the call sign Executive One Foxtrot (“Foxtrot” indicating “family”).  For the family of the Vice President, the call sign would be Executive Two Foxtrot.

* Federal Aviation Administration Order 7110.65V (Air Traffic Control) [Change 3 effective as of 2014 April 3]

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