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Air Force 1's Flight Into History

Air Force One has played a pivotal role in American history. It was the place where Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office after President Kennedy's assassination and where the President Bush was protected on Sept. 11.

Von Hardesty, curator of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, has written a book about the presidential plane called "Air Force One." And CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer, who spent many hours aboard Air Force One during the Ford and Carter administrations, wrote the forward for the book.

Schieffer tells The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm, Air Force One is "what the modern presidency is about. Hamilton Jordan who was Jimmy Carter's chief of staff calls it 'the president's plus.' It's like the circus coming to town. When Air Force One comes to town, you have the Secret Service. It's just an amazing thing.

"But the thing that impresses me, Hannah, is that how much a part of our culture Air Force One has become, because we had these great events, triumphs and tragedies that have happened and there in the background, you'll generally have Air Force One. The first thing we saw when Richard Nixon came to China.

"It was the thing in the background when John Kennedy's casket was lowered down on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force base and other times when Gerald Ford fell down the steps of Air Force One."

The book reveals trivia such as that FDR was the first president to fly, but it was really JFK who took Air Force One into the Jet age. He, however, had physical ailments and couldn't walk up the stairs, at one point.

Hardesty says, "We have one photograph in there that shows him being lifted on a crane to gain entry into the plane. This has only been recently revealed, the severity of his ailments."

Today, there are two 747 jumbo jets that now serve as Air Force One, Hardesty explains. He describes, "The tail reaches six stories and the wing span of 195 feet. It's just a huge airplane. It dwarfs the plane that JFK flew in terms of accommodations and size."

The president has his own area in the plane and then there is another for a press corps of about six or so journalists who can travel with him.

Asked if some presidents are friendlier than others, Schieffer answers, "Every president sets the tone for Air Force One. For Nixon, it was a refuge where he could be in seclusion. Jimmy Carter didn't come back to talk to us much, but his daughter Amy, loved to come back and steal the fruit and candy bars and we would pretend to be outraged.

"Gerald Ford would come back and say 'Everything is off the record.' He's the only president I've reported who would drink in front of reporters. He'd come back and have a little pop with us just to relax. The greatest contrast, though, was when the Clintons were in the White House. When Mrs. Clinton was on board, the menus tended to be Caesar salad with dressing on the side. When President Clinton was there and she wasn't there, you got a cheeseburger."

"Air Force One - Celebrating The History Of This Famous Airplane" is not only a complete history of Air Force One, but of all presidential transportation including the planes that preceded Air Force One, trains, boats, ships and even horses.

Read an excerpt from "Air Force One":

As the White House correspondent for CBS News during the Ford and Carter presidencies, I traveled all over America and around the world many times on Air Force One. But I never understood the drawing power of the great blue and white plane until the fall of 1976, when I was covering Gerald Ford's presidential campaign.

We had landed at an airport in the Pacific Northwest. There was to be a brief rally there before we flew on to another stop. The crowd was larger than expected, and I soon realized why. As I made my way to an area that had been roped off for the press, I picked up a campaign flyer that had blown onto the tarmac. I was about to throw it into a trash bin when the headline caught my eye. Emblazoned in large type across the top of the sheet, it read, "Come See Air Force One." In smaller type, it noted that the president of the United States would also be making an appearance.

I told that story one day to retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Randall Larsen, one-time commander of the fleet of planes based at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington that are used to transport cabinet officers and ranking government officials.

He laughed but wasn't surprised. Larsen grew up in Indiana in a neighborhood that bordered on the Indianapolis 500 racetrack, and he said that when he was thirteen years old his father learned that President Kennedy was coming there on a visit. "I'll never forget it," he told me. "My dad heard about it one day and said to me, 'Hey Randy, want to go see Air Force One?' I'm not sure he even mentioned that the president would be coming along. But he didn't need to; he knew what I would want to see was that airplane."

From 1996 to 1998, Larsen ran the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base and was responsible for the forty-nine transports and helicopters in the VIP fleet - all of the VIP aircraft except the two big planes used routinely by the president. When he took formal command of the unit, the ceremony was held beneath the wing of Air Force One. "In my remarks, I said there were probably other colonels taking command of other units that day, but to stand there in the shadow of Air Force One, for me it was like winning at Indy," Larsen said.

Anyone who has traveled on Air Force One and watched the reactions that it evokes will understand what Larsen means. Air Force One has come to be as much a symbol of the American presidency as the White House. Hamilton Jordan, who served as Jimmy Carter's White House chief of staff, calls it "the Presidency Plus" when the nation's chief executive arrives on Air Force One.

"First there's that majestic plane," he said, "and then there's the entourage of Secret Service agents and military aides. It's like the circus coming to town or a celebrity you've seen on television or in the movies. People want to see how it all looks in person."

As America has grown larger and more diverse, television has become the one experience we have all shared, and as we have gathered around our TVs to watch the triumphs and tragedies of the last four decades, Air Force One has often been part of the picture. It was Air Force One that first came onto our screens when Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China, and it was from Air Force One that we saw John Kennedy's coffin lowered onto the airport
tarmac after that awful day in Texas.

Those scenes will be forever etched in the memories of the generations of Americans who saw them on television.

And there would be so many other pictures. In 1974, on a sunny morning at Andrews, I watched another unforgettable scene unfold at the door of Air Force One - a scene that would be broadcast around the world. Richard Nixon had been brought down by the Watergate scandal, and as he left Washington on that August morning, the last time Americans would see him while he still held the title of president was as he turned and entered the cabin of Air Force One.

It was an eerie sight to behold, eerie because it all seemed so routine yet was anything but that. Nixon walked quickly up the steps to the cabin door as he always did, turned and waved and smiled as he always did. Yet the scene was not at all what it seemed. What we were seeing were the final scenes in one of the most traumatic periods in our nation's history. In a matter of hours, Nixon would be the first American president to resign the office.

He had said good-bye to the nation earlier that morning at the White House and had gone to Andrews for the flight home to California. By agreement, he was to officially give up the presidency at noon ET that day, but he was still president as the door of the plane closed, and because any plane on which the president rides carries the call sign Air Force One, it was Air Force One that ground controllers cleared for takeoff.

But several hours later, as the plane flew west and noon approached, Nixon's pilot, Colonel Ralph Albertazzie, radioed the Kansas City Regional Flight Control Center and requested that his call sign be changed from Air Force One to SAM (Special Air Mission) 26000. At precisely the same time back in Washington, Gerald Ford was sworn in as the nation's first unelected president.

Some months later, I would witness yet another scene at the door of Air Force One that would indelibly mark the presidency of Nixon's successor. It was a misty day in Salzburg, Austria, and Ford had come there for talks with Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat. Ford was trying to renew efforts to forge yet another peace plan for the Middle East, but little is remembered from that day except what happened when Ford stepped out the door of Air Force One.

As he gave an arm to his wife to help her down the steps, he slipped and fell headlong down the stairs and onto the concrete runway below. Those of us who were watching from the press area at first thought he had been shot. Miraculously, he was not hurt. But after that scene was broadcast around the world, Ford never recovered from the blow to his image he suffered that day. Comedians turned the incident into a running gag and as the joke went, Vice President Rockefeller was "only a banana peel away from the presidency."

Ironically, Ford had been a college athlete and was in remarkable shape and health for a person his age, but no politician is helped when he becomes the punch line of jokes. The pictures from that day - what Mrs. Ford later called "a stumbly, bumbly image" - dogged him throughout his presidency, and some of his advisors believed it was one reason he lost the election.

Every president of the television age has loved Air Force One and the mobility it brought to the presidency, and the atmosphere aboard the plane has always reflected each man's personality. For the reclusive Nixon, the compartment reserved for the president was a refuge, a place where he spent hours alone, developing and writing out on a yellow legal pad the early drafts of the ideas that would become the themes of his presidency.

For Ford, the plane was a place to relax and unwind, and other passengers on board reflected Ford's informality. Most of the reporters who travel with a president fly aboard a chartered commercial airliner, but a half dozen, called the "press pool," ride aboard Air Force One to report what happens there to the rest of the press corps. Ford was the only president I covered who had the self-confidence to have a social drink in front of reporters, and occasionally, he would wander back to the press compartment at the rear of the plane, martini in hand, with no other purpose than to shoot the breeze.

"Off the record, guys," he would announce, then he would spend a half hour or so joking and trading gossip.

Jimmy Carter seldom visited the press cabin, but we always kept an eye out for his daughter, Amy. Reporters sat around a table, and stewards usually placed a bowl of fruit and other snacks there. Amy loved to dash through the area and grab our fruit and candy. We always pretended to be angry, which seemed to delight her.

Carter had little use for the trappings of the modern presidency, and in the beginning of his presidency he would sometimes emerge from Air Force One carrying his own luggage, as he had done in the campaign, though he would soon abandon the practice.

Of all the modern presidents, Carter probably had the unhappiest memories about the plane. He was on board the aircraft when aides called him in the early hours of election day 1980 and told him overnight polling showed he would not only lose to Ronald Reagan but lose badly.

His top strategist, Hamilton Jordan, had stayed behind at the White House and told me it was one of the hardest calls that anyone on Carter's staff had ever made: "He was in Seattle when we reached him and he was flying on to Plains, Georgia, to vote, and our polling showed that he would not carry one state that he would be flying over. It was a tough night."

Ronald Reagan was the most fastidious of the modern presidents, and the first thing he would do upon boarding Air Force One was to change into comfortable clothing. He kept on his white shirt and tie, but always removed his coat and exchanged his trousers for a pair of sweat pants.

It was an unusual sartorial combination - shirt and tie, polished wingtips, and sweat pants - but the Old Actor knew the place where fashion statements counted was not backstage but before the audience. Unlike Ford, Reagan seldom visited the section of the plane where reporters sat unless he had something specific he wanted to tell them, but the visits were always pleasant. Mrs. Reagan would usually accompany him and would hand out chocolates to the reporters.

No president enjoffied Air Force One more than Bill Clinton, who liked company as much as Richard Nixon liked being alone. For Clinton, Air Force One was the place for marathon conversations that would begin at some faraway capital and go on through the night, until the plane finally returned to Andrews.

Mark Knoller, the CBS News correspondent who has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles on Air Force One, remembers that on some long flights, Clinton would show up in the press cabin and talk for hours.

"Sometimes you got the feeling that he started at the front of the plane and worked his way down the rows of passengers and once he wore them out, he would make his way to the press area and talk to us," Knoller said. "The man could really talk, but it was always interesting."

Excerpted from "Air Force One," by Von Hardesty and Bob Schieffer Copyright© 2003 by Von Hardesty and Bob Schieffer. Excerpted by permission of Tehabi Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.