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Ike's Bird - Air Force One
Daron J Cristy, Contributing Writer & Photographer

Hangar stories abound at every airport. The old boys love to sit around and tell their tales in what seems to us a very different era in life. If you have a minute or two, you should take some time out, sit back and listen to these guys and what they did in the aviation world. One day they will not be here to tell them, and you will definitely have missed out.

Bill, the "Mayor of Flattop" at Montgomery Field (MYF) in San Diego is one of those guys. So many great stories that he loves to talk about, his and his friend's antics. He has been flying for so long that it could easily be said that he has avgas running through his veins.

Bill turned me on to one story about Ike's Bird. He worked for a guy called J. W. "Bill" Duff who owned J. W. Duff Aircraft Salvage located near Denver-Stapleton airport, Colorado.

J. W. "Bill" Duff actually once said that, as well as not being a pilot, he was "scared to death of airplanes," even though he has spent most of his life around aviation. Which is probably true, as he often saw the unfortunate end of many planes that ended up in his salvage yard and the inevitable fate of those pilots who flew them.

Well, Bill, the "Mayor of Flattop," told this story about J. W. "Bill" Duff and Air Force One.

A Little Air Force One Background

Air Force One is the call sign that is attached to any airplane carrying the president. Air Force Two is for the vice president. Marine One is assigned to the helicopter transports. When the president is not on board, they revert to call signs with the preface SAM (Special Air Mission).

The call sign Air Force One was introduced in 1953 after a similarly numbered commercial airliner (Eastern Airlines Flight 8610) entered the airspace of the presidential airplane (Air Force 8610).

Currently there are two custom built Boeing 747-200Bs (serial number 28000 and 29000) in service that are assigned to the Presidential Airlift Group, which has become one of the most recognized symbols of the United States president. These are certainly not standard 747s and include modifications such as armor plating and an array of other things that remain classified.

These 747s were introduced to service in 1990, first used by George H. W. Bush, and are due to be replaced in 2024 with the 747-800s, which are longer, wider, have greater range, and can fly even faster.

John F. Kennedy was the first president to be flown in a specifically built jet (Boeing 707-353B) in 1962. Jackie Kennedy enrolled the services of designer Raymond Loewy to create a new interior for the plane. This plane is also significant in the fact that it carried the body of JFK back to Washington, D.C., after his assassination.

So, What About Ike's Bird?

Ike's Bird was a 1955 Aero Commander U-4B (L-26B), which was used from 1955 until 1960 by the Eisenhower administration. The air force ordered fifteen Commanders, two of which were placed in the service of the White House.

President Eisenhower and his presidential pilot, Col. William G. Draper, with the U-4B Aero Commander. (US Air Force photo)

The Aero Commander is the smallest plane ever to be used as Air Force One. And the first to wear the now famous blue and white livery.

Wingspan: 529 inches
Length: 425 inches
Height: 177.5
Weight: 4,300 lb. (empty), 7,000 lb. (loaded)
Armament: None
Engines: 2 Lycoming GSO 480-AiA6 each 340 hp
Max Speed: 260 mph/225 knots
Cruising Speed: 230 mph/199 knots
Service Ceiling: 24,300 ft
Range: 1,500 statute miles/1,300 nautical miles

Ike's heart attack had made the requirement for safe and secure transportation essential. It fitted the task for short transports to the president's retreat located in Gettysburg, just sixty miles from Washington, D.C. However, the retreat only had a grass strip which was not suitable for larger and heavier aircraft, and thus the Aero Commander was chosen for that task. This was in the era before reliable helicopter transport was available.

After recovering, Ike was known on occasions to pilot the Aero Commander.

The Aero Commander also carried John F. Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Billy Graham, the president of Mexico, and dignitaries from other foreign nations.

Due to the very limited seating capacity of the Aero commander, a second one was used to transport the Secret Service personnel.

In 1969 it was transferred to the Air Force Academy where it was used for cadet parachute training and the academy's skydiving team.

In 1977 it was replaced at the academy by a UV-18 Twin Otter. Tom Menza flew the Aero Commander to Davis-Monthan AFB and then on to Sidney, Nebraska, where it was transferred to the Nebraska Civil Air Patrol.

Both of the engines on the Aero Commander had timed out and needed changing. The Civil Air Patrol could not afford that, so the plane was placed with a trade school in Sidney.

J. W. "Bill" Duff traded for it a short time after that.

Rick Broome, an Aviation Hall of Fame artist, located the plane near Stapleton Airport at J.W. Duff Aircraft Salvage in 1988, even though the records had shown that the plane had been scrapped in 1977. It had taken many hours and years of research to track the plane down.

After many years of negotiations with the US Air Force museum, it was concluded that the museum would receive the former Air Force One Aero Commander and J. W. Duff Aircraft Salvage would get some aircraft in exchange (rumored to be six Huey helicopters). It was not quite that simple though; Bill Duff had agreed to restore the aircraft into flying condition and, most importantly, to how the factory had originally produced it for the president. That meant following the plans and specific drawings from Aero Design and Engineering Co. work release order 2277A, form 118B for 55-4647. Mr. Duff had a great resource in his aircraft salvage yard; however, if any parts used were not the original ones, the museum had to agree, and the serial number for that part had to be preceded with an R.

A team of four, two pilots and two mechanics, flew from the museum to J. W. Duff Aircraft Salvage in a Baron. The Baron would run escort in case of any issues.

The two planes started the trip back to Dayton, Ohio.

Somewhere over Kansas, the Aero Commander started having rough running issues with one of the engines forcing both planes to land.

On the ground, the two mechanics began working on getting the engine running properly.

The arrival of two planes, especially one with the livery of Air Force One, immediately gained attention, and the authorities showed up. As all the crew were dressed in civilian clothing, the pilot was asked for his credentials. He was not too forthcoming; however, if they would allow him to use the phone, they could speak to the pilot's boss, General Charles Metcalf, director of the Air Force museum at Wright-Patterson AFB.

After some time, the mechanics were able to get the engine running properly, and the authorities were satisfied that the planes and crew were on an authorized mission, so they were able to proceed to the museum.

The Aero Commander U-4B (L-26B) was put on display in July 1998 at the National Museum of the US Air Force on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio.

The Aero Commander sitting under the wing of John F. Kennedy's 707 (SAM 26000)
J. W. "Bill" Duff at the presentation ceremony at Air Force museum, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
General Charles Metcalf, director of the museum, at the dedication ceremony
The Aero Commander U-4B at the National Museum of the United States Air Force on April 12, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)
By Daron J Cristy -
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