Air Force One: The Graphic History
By Phil Patton February 24, 2009
Air Force One: The Graphic History
By Phil Patton February 24, 2009
Air Force One: The Graphic History
By Phil Patton February 24, 2009

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.

Promo for On Board: Air Force One, on the National Geographic Channel; movie poster for Air Force One starring Harrison Ford

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 Right Stuff.

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 tail.

The 707-based Air Force One of 1962 with Loewy scheme; The 747 based upgrade circa 1989, over Mt. Rushmore (official White House image of Air Force One)

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 inspiration.

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 Hagley Museum's 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 Force One.

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 Crosby, instead.)

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 services.

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 red.

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 preference.

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 Library's website).

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.

Side by side comparison of Declaration of Independence heading and the lettering on Air Force One

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 American cinema!

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 they don't.

President Kennedy deplanes the old Air Force One, in 1962 (courtesy: 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 Dayton, Ohio.

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 duty.

President Obama in Air Force One embroidered jacket

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 date.

Now, there's a shovel-ready job for a graphic designer. Even Loewy probably would have had a better idea.

Tags history Article Voice graphic design