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Corporate jets are not much in favor these days, except for the
ultimate CEO aircraft, the Air Force One. For my money—and
it is my money, and yours—it's the best presidential perquisite of
them all. Beyond the Oval Office or that chunky new limousine,
Air Force One is more than a personal luxury; it's a chariot
of the demigods, allowing the country's leader to drop miraculously
from heaven into a world capital or small town with the primal
power of a cargo-cult deity.
National Geographic Channel's On Board Air Force One (top);
movie poster for Harrison Ford in Air Force One.
While the White House is regularly redecorated and
the First Cadillac has just been updated, the current transfer
of power reminded me that the presidential plane has retained its
livery since 1962, even as the type of plane used has changed. The
National Geographic Channel offers coverage
of Air Force One's past and present and
recently showed then-President-elect Barack Obama taking his
first ride and meeting the pilot. Obama said the pilot looked the
way the pilot of Air Force One should look, saying he was
“out of central casting” and compared him to Sam Shepard in The
But it is Harrison Ford, playing a president named James
Marshall who is also a former fighter pilot, who takes control of
the plane in the 1997 movie Air Force One. This film also
offers speculations about secrets of the interior of the airplane,
such as pods and passages from which the star battles hijacking
terrorists. Hollywood loves Air Force One. It played a large
role on The West Wing; and in Independence Day, it
carries “President Thomas J. Whitmore,” portrayed by Bill Pullman,
and lands inside Area 51 to resist invasion from outer space.
For all the interest in the “flying White House,” we generally
ignore its blue-and-white paint job, serif lettering and heraldry,
a graphic scheme rich in history.
The tale of its origins is almost urban legend: as I had heard
the story told, Raymond Loewy was hired by Jackie Kennedy to create
a smart graphic identity for President Kennedy, who was then being
flown in a Boeing 707. That design—white on top, polished metal on
bottom, with two hues of blue in-between—remain on the current 747,
along with all-caps Caslon reading “United States of America,” the
presidential seal on the sides and the American flag on the
The 707-based Air Force One, with Loewy's 1962 scheme (left);
and the 747-based upgrade, c. 1989, over Mt. Rushmore.
The specific origins of the design, like pretty much everything
from the Loewy office, are obscured in mystery. Loewy talked about
the design in his 1976 book Industrial
Design and claimed to have spread out his drawings in the
Oval Office to go over the design with JFK. Loewy told of
three-hour-long sessions with the president, working on the floor
with scissors and rubber cement.
That story struck me, as is so often the case with Loewy, as
TGTC—“too good to check,” as cynical journalists say. Loewy, who is
still regularly credited with designing the Coca-Cola bottle by
people who should know better, tended to forget to mention key
subordinates and to spin tales of miraculous, instant
I wondered, who might have helped? Who should also be credited
with Air Force One's design? And what were the real
inspirations for it?
I was lucky enough to find the wonderful Lynn Catanese at the
Library Manuscripts and Archives Department, the repository for
a large chunk of Loewy's archives. (The Hagley, in Wilmington,
Delaware, also mounted a major
exhibition of Loewy's work in 2002.) Catanese kindly located
and sent me an account Loewy wrote in 1967 about his work on Air
In this typewritten account, Loewy writes that he saw President
Kennedy's 707 for the first time in March 1962, when JFK flew into
Palm Springs, where Loewy had a house. (That's the famous trip,
March 23–25, during which Frank Sinatra had hoped to host Kennedy,
but Sinatra's mob connections led the president's handlers to avoid
him. In frustration, Sinatra personally took a sledgehammer to the
concrete helipad he had built for the president's arrival when,
adding insult to injury, he learned that JFK was staying with Bing
Loewy with Air Force One plane model.
Loewy met with Gen. Godfrey T. McHugh, the president's Air Force
aide, in charge of his travel. He had known McHugh for a long
time—a reminder of the sort of networking for which Loewy was
famous, and probably a lesson for us all. Loewy recalled pointing
out “the unbelievably poor manner in which the paint was applied”
and the “rather gaudy” color scheme of the plane. “I felt that the
new aircraft could become an image of the American government,” he
wrote, “and that its appearance should be impeccable in every way.
Loewy said he and his firm would be happy to donate their
His offer accepted, the designer showed up at the White House
that May with four graphic schemes and five lettering alternatives.
Loewy credits his graphics department, headed by Roy Larsen, with
the lettering. The first proposals, according to Loewy, were based
on a red theme, the Air Force standard. ”Together we arranged the
panels on armchairs lined up against the west wall and the
president without hesitation selected one of the graphics.“ His
choice was also the one Loewy preferred.
JFK picked the paint scheme, too, but he wanted it in blue, not
red. He said that he had never liked red and that blue was his
favorite color. (In another version of the story, when Kennedy
found out that the Air Force had proposed a presidential livery for
the plane in red and gold, he balked that those colors were too
imperial.) As it turned out, it would take a special dispensation
from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to use blue instead of
Loewy returned with blue patterns a few days later. He brought
scissors and rubber paint with him. ”The president's desk was small
and covered with documents,“ Loewy wrote. ”I knelt on the floor
while the president, seated in his rocking chair, watched and made
suggestions.“ The president even suggested a small change to one
line of the pattern. Then, Loewy says, Kennedy called in his
secretaries, Evelyn Lincoln and Mary Gallagher—who was actually the
First Lady's social secretary—to choose their favorites. The
results of this informal focus group supported the president's
Loewy says he was at the White House on May 8, 1962, and again
on May 15. But the White House appointment diaries kept at the JFK
Library do not indicate Loewy was there (see White House Diary on
The first date, interestingly enough, was the day the president
first rode in his new helicopter, the future Marine One. He took it
to Atlantic City, where he gave a morning address to the convention
of the United Auto Workers before returning to the White House by
12:30 p.m.—a demonstration of what fast executive aircraft can do
for your schedule. The diary records that the president took a long
lunch, which could have been when Loewy talked to him. Or Loewy
could have had the date wrong. There is no mention about Loewy on
the calendar for May 15, either. But not every appointment was
registered in the diary and Loewy's account has too much detail to
seem wholly invented.
There is no mention of Jackie Kennedy, although everyone seems
to agree that she worked with Loewy, adding some decorative touches
to the interior of the airplane. After President Kennedy's death
she was instrumental in having Loewy's office hired to design the
postage stamp commemorating JFK.
There is nothing in Loewy's account about the ideas behind the
paint schemes. And there is no mention in Loewy's story of another
legend that floats around: that the graphic chosen was inspired by
a visit—by Loewy? or a staffer?—to the National Archives and seeing
the widely spaced type heading on the original printed copy of the
Declaration of Independence.
One theory is the heading of the Declaration of Independence
(top) influenced the lettering on Air Force One (photo: Reuters).
Nor is the story very clear on how Loewy actually got the gig.
Loewy had the background for the job, of course. He had designed
railroad and airline livery—Penn Central, TWA and, don't forget,
the look and logo for Greyhound buses. Before World War II, bus
transport was still a popular and respectable means of travel,
while airlines were for the elite. At the time buses carried one
hundred times more passengers than aircraft did.
Loewy was still the best-known industrial designer in the world
in the 1960s—perhaps the only well-known one. In Scorcese's The
Aviator, Howard Hughes of TWA, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and
Juan Trippe of Pan Am, played by Alec Baldwin, squabble over ”Ray“
Loewy's services—one of the few industrial design vignettes in
Loewy's reputation is not as high today, however. He is
remembered more for the design of his own image than for specific
products. His stories of scrawling the Exxon logo on a napkin seem
too glib by far.
But the Air Force One scheme is surprisingly subtle. It
avoids, to begin with, the obvious red, white and blue. The
subtlest part of the design was the use of the two blues. The
lighter one is said to represent tradition. The darker,
cyan-influenced one, is said to be more futuristic. Loewy described
it as ”a luminous ultramarine blue.“
That light blue—somewhere between sky and robin egg
blue—recalled the United Nations blue and therefore suggested
peace. It also referenced the blue of Pan Am, the
quasi-American-flag carrier airline of the time. It seems to me a
pretty daring color to use by the president in 1963. It could
easily have been taken for soft or sissy. It looked positively
French; it could have come from the waistcoat of a courtier in the
court of Louis XVI.
The more you look at the scheme today, the better it looks. It
is smart and subtle. There's pure white on top and pure metal below
and those two blues. The engines, too, are not forgotten—they get
the soft blue. The parabolic curve patterns could look dated, yet
President Kennedy deplanes the old Air Force One, in 1962
NASA/KSC); and new, with Jacqueline Kennedy, in 1963
(photo: Cecil Stoughton, White House/JFK Library).
The very name Air Force One reflected the traditional
inter-service rivalry. The Marines and its parent, the Navy, only
obtained their due with the designation of the presidential
helicopter, Marine One. And as anyone knows who has seen the
eponymous film, the plane is only called Air Force One when
the president is on board. (Over the years, I learned, it has been
lent out surprisingly often to haul impressionable third-world
leaders about.) Otherwise, the planes have numbers. The 707 in use
when Kennedy arrived was called SAM 970. (SAM stood for Special Air
Mission.) The plane with the Loewy paint job was SAM 26000.
Previously, Franklin Roosevelt was the first to establish the
airplane as a symbol of presidential power even before he was
elected when he flew to Chicago in 1932 to accept the Democratic
nomination in person, a dramatic break with tradition. Roosevelt
flew to wartime leadership conferences on a C-54—the military
version of the DC-4—nicknamed the Sacred Cow. Truman's
DC-6-based aircraft was called the Independence. Eisenhower
had several Lockheed Constellations, each named Columbine,
after the wildflower native to his home state of Kansas. The
Constellation, arguably the most beautiful airliner ever, was the
brainchild of Howard Hughes, who had Lockheed build it for TWA. At
least one of them bears a graphic of the flower on its nose. (I
once walked through and sat in the cockpit of the Columbine,
when it had fallen on hard times and was up for sale.) All three
are at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in
Eisenhower upgraded to a 707, or as the military called it, a
C-137 Stratoliner, based on the tanker version of the Boeing. In
the last years of his administration, Eisenhower's air transport
was the charge of the MATS (Military Air Transport Service).
John Kennedy wanted something more presidential. He continued to
fly on the order jet until he had a new, specially built 707 from
Boeing delivered in October 1962, the month of the Cuban Missile
Crisis. This plane, of course, was the one on which LBJ was sworn
into office in Dallas and which carried Kennedy's coffin back to
Washington. It was in service until 1972, and then put on backup
President Obama in embroidered Air Force One jacket, February 5,
2009 (photo: Reuters).
The Kennedy-commissioned blue-and-white pattern was also applied
to the DC-6 based prop-jet that he flew for shorter hops. The
livery was retained through Nixon's trips to China and the
administrations of Ford, Carter and Reagan. It was carried over to
the next generation of aircraft—the 747, a bulbous buffalo of a
plane—when the larger, newer plane arrived in 1989. (There are two
of these, actually.)
In the pictures and video clips I've seen, President Obama looks
pretty impressed with his new airplane—as well he should be. But he
needs to think again about the jacket he donned on his first flight
as president, on February 5, which displays the words ”Air Force
One“ and his name in embroidery suggestive of a bowling
jacket—hardly worthy of the Obama operation's graphic standards to
Now, there's a shovel-ready job for a graphic designer. Even
Loewy probably would have had a better idea.
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