May 19th, 2020

Air Force One Sets a Speed Record?

Air Force One sets a speed record.  During my life in aviation I have heard some strange tales, but this one really caught me by surprise.  But it is true.

Early Air Force One Models

President Dwight Eisenhower was the first to fly in a jet aircraft as the sitting president.  It was 1959 and the Air Force had introduced three specially built Boeing 707 jet aircraft (VC-137s).  These aircraft replaced two propeller driven Lockheed C-121 Constellations. 

SAM 26000

Mamie Eisenhower adopted Colorado as her home state and in the honor of the Colorado State Flower, the Constellations were dubbed Columbine II and III.  This was long before Columbine shootings.  As an aside Columbine I had been Eisenhower’s airplane when he served as a Five Star General in the Army. 

Back to the three Boeing 707s, they were designated SAM (Special Air Missions) 970, 971, and 972.  SAM 970 carried Eisenhower on an 11-nation goodwill tour in 1959. 

President Kennedy used the aircraft as well.  Then in the Fall of 1962, the Air Force purchased a modified long-range Boeing 707 (C-137) and dubbed it SAM 26000.  It was in this aircraft that the record was set. 

The Record Setter

Glenn Seaborg

It was May 19, 1963, at the controls was 46-year-old Air Force Colonel James Swindal.  Swindal was John F. Kennedy’s personal pilot, but Kennedy was not onboard this day.  Rather the dignitary of note was Glenn Seaborg, the Atomic Energy Commission Chairman. 

Takeoff was from Andrews AFB, just outside of Washington, DC.  The destination was Moscow, the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in present day Russia.  Accompanying Seaborg were a Soviet navigator and radio operator.  Both men were required to be on board as per the guidelines to fly over the communist USSR.

The cockpit

The aircraft took off and landed 8 hours, 39 minutes and 2 seconds later.  Along the way it averaged 490.96 miles per hour.  At one point in the trip, they picked up a hefty tailwind and notched an average speed of 591 miles per hour.  Most importantly they erased a Soviet misconception that a US jet was unable to travel 5,000 miles unrefueled.  Swindal landed with two hours’ worth of fuel in the plane’s multiple fuel tanks. 

On the way back to the US, SAM 26000 (it is called Air Force One only when the president is aboard) set 15 more speed records.  SAM 26000 earned a well-deserved retirement in 1998 and now resides at the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson.  But on May 19, 1963, she was, for a time, the fastest bird on the planet.  Air Force One Sets a Speed record, wow!

SAM 26000 at the Air Force Museum

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