Commentary
6:30 am
Mon January 21, 2013

Presidential Aviating

Presidents and flight had a quiet start in the summer of 1909, when Orville returned to Ft. Myer to complete the Army trials that ended abruptly with his crash in September of the previous year.  The Army allowed the Wrights to return as they had already more than fulfilled the contract.  This time there were many observers, including fellow Ohioan President Williams Howard Taft.  A tent was set up, and he sat with the Wrights' sister Katharine.

Lost to history is whether Taft wanted to fly or that the Wrights had to inform him that weight was an issue.  The President was a very large man.

The first President to fly in an aircraft was Teddy Roosevelt.  While not the sitting President, he was still the first.  In October of 1910 at an airshow in St. Louis, Arch Hoxey, a demonstration pilot for the Wright Company offered Roosevelt a ride, which he enthusiastically accepted.  Mind you, in the early days of aviation, flying could be a dangerous business.  They flew for about 4 minutes and circled the field twice.  TR said he wished they could have stayed in the air for an hour.

Hoxey was killed at the end of the same year in a crash of the same type of airplane.

Today we see the President's helicopter landing on the White House lawn and think nothing of it.  But the first aircraft to land there?  That was big news.

He was greeted by President Taft as the Flyer rolled to a stop only 30 feet from the south portico. There were no brakes on Wright Flyers.

On July 15, 1911 another Wright Flyer flown by Harry Atwood, who had to weave his way through monuments and trees, landed on the south lawn.  Atwood had just finished his flight training with the Wrights at Huffman Prairie three months before.  He was greeted by President Taft as the Flyer rolled to a stop only 30 feet from the south portico.  There were no brakes on Wright Flyers.  Taft awarded him a gold medal from the Washington Aero Club for "a new chapter in the thrills of the flying art."

Shortly after that, the Wright Flyers disappeared into history as the art and science of flying flew right past them.

The first serving President to fly was another Roosevelt, FDR.  The realities of the war and his necessary attendance at the summit in Casablanca saw him flying across the Atlantic in one of the great Boeing Clippers built for Pan American.

Flying across an ocean was an enormous leap forward from the Wright Flyers and 4 minute flights.

C-54 Sacred Cow on display at the National Museum of the USAF
Credit Dan Patterson

Later in the war, the Army Air Force arranged with Douglas Aircraft to build a Presidential airplane, a version of the DC-4.  The Army name was C-54, but this plane was known as the "Sacred Cow."  Roosevelt used this unique aircraft just once before he died in April of 1945, but this plane served President Truman for more than 2 years and he signed the documents created United States Air Force on the conference table in this airplane.

This was the only aircraft equipped with an elevator to accommodate FDR's wheelchair.  The modifications were designed and carried out at Wright Field.  This plane is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, where you can see the elevator, tour the airplane and see the desk where Truman signed the papers creating the Air Force.  In fact all the historic Air Force Presidential aircraft are on display here in Dayton, except for the current Boeing 747 used by President Obama.

So no matter how you voted, today is the day we celebrate having a President and a big blue and white airplane to carry the flag.