Club hears history of Air Force One
“Which of our Presidents was the first to fly in an airplane?” This was the opener of the several trivia type questions posed by Neal Certain, retired Air Force Colonel, as he addressed the regular monthly meeting of the Grand Junction Ruritan Club on Tuesday, Feb. 9.
The Georgia native entered the Air Force after graduating from the University of Georgia. Retiring as a Colonel after 23 years, he then joined Fedex where he flew for an additional 20 years. A Vietnam veteran, Certain logged 17,000 hours flying many different types of aircraft during his over 40 plus year career.
“I started out flying KC135 tankers. Those are the planes that refuel others while in flight. Later I flew the RC135 which is a reconnaissance aircraft,” said Certain. His most notable assignment during his military career was as chief pilot of Air Force One. He flew two years for President Jimmy Carter and two years for President Ronald Reagan. “That wasn’t a job I volunteered for. I guess the Good Lord just sent me,” he said. “The President doesn’t hand pick his pilot. He can sure hand fire them though.” Actually Certain was, no doubt, selected for the job because he had more hours in command of that type aircraft than any other pilot in the Air Force at that time.
After briefly talking about his career and appointment to Air Force One, Certain began a PowerPoint exhibit of all presidential aircraft from the first to the present time. He involved the audience by asking questions throughout the presentation.
“Who was the very first President to have a designated presidential airplane?” Franklin Roosevelt. It was an amphibious craft delivered in 1933. There is no record of the president making any flights in the plane. In 1943 Roosevelt received another plane. This one, a C-54 Skymaster, had an elevator to accommodate the president’s wheelchair. He used this plane only once to make his historic trip to the Yalta conference in 1945.
In 1947, President Harry Truman replaced the C-54 with a C-118 Liftmaster. This was the first presidential aircraft to have a distinctive exterior, an eagle’s head painted on the nose.
“The Presidential call sign ‘Air Force One’ was established in 1953. Eastern Airlines Flight 8610 accidentally entered the same airspace as Air Force Flight 8610. President Eisenhower was on board the latter,” said Certain. “Air Force One is not the name of the plane. It’s the radio call sign for the president. If the president is not aboard, the aircraft is identified by its tail number.”
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