How Air force One Got Its Distinctive Look

A modern VC-25B (747) as Air Force One (Photo: Elizabeth Slater/ U. S. Air Force)

As the media has paid recent attention to Air Force One, I thought I would take a few moments to discuss how this aircraft got its iconic livery and became a symbol of the president and the nation. Air Force One is an integral part of American state ceremony. It ferries the president to locations beyond Washington and takes him on foreign visits. The image of the president waving on the steps of the aircraft when he arrives or departs has become so iconic it has almost become obligatory. Often on foreign visits, an honor guard is found at the steps of the aircraft and dignitaries lined up to greet the president. Many would be surprised to find that the aircraft that transports the President was not always blue and white, in fact, it was once orange! Presidents Roosevelt and Truman flew in various propeller-driven aircraft and it wasn’t until the end of President Eisenhower’s first term that a set of jet-powered Boeing 707s were delivered to the U.S. Air Force. Like all VIP aircraft in the fleet, they were painted in a high visibility orange with the words “Military Air Transport Service” written on the side. There was really nothing indicating the importance of their mission or the person they carried.

Orange livery before Loewy (Photo: Robert Knudsen / White House)

  It would not be until the next president before the plane we know today came into being. As will be explained in forthcoming posts, President Kennedy was very influential in shaping modern, American state ceremony. Kennedy first ordered that “United States of America” be painted on the side, thinking it was far more dignified than “Military Air Transport Service.” Eventually, famed industrial designer, Raymond Loewy would be hired to design a whole new livery. Some sources contend First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy specifically sought out Loewy but this has never been proven. Even without the Air Force One commission, Raymond Lowey’s firm would have still been remembered for designing the logos of TWA, Exxon, Nabisco, numerous locomotive and automotive designs and helping to make Coca-Cola a universally recognized brand. Reportedly spending several hours with President Kennedy, the pair eventually decided on a blue scheme (Kennedy’s favorite color), lots of polished metal and the Presidential seal on the lower half of the fuselage ahead of the wing. Sadly, many Americans would become familiar with the new color scheme as it sat on the tarmac of Dallas Love Field during the chaos of November 22nd, 1963. The colors would also be the backdrop to President Johnson’s trips to Vietnam, Nixon’s famous trip to China and Reagan’s summits with Soviet President Gorbachev.

President Kennedy and the First Lady depart Air Force One in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963 (Photo: Cecil Stoughton / White House)

When the 707s were replaced with 747s in the late 1980s, the livery was modified to fit on the larger fuselage but stayed very similar. Whatever replaces the current fleet of presidential aircraft, the livery is virtually guaranteed to stay the same as it has become so synonymous with the American Presidency. Eventually, as more modern aircraft are made of composite materials, the livery may have to be reworked if there is no metal to polish.


Von Hardesty, Air Force One: The Aircraft That Shaped the Modern Presidency (Chanhassen, Minnesota: Creative Publishing International)


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