President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential aircraft, Columbine II, was going to land in Mount Pleasant, Texas? “Seriously! Can’t miss that,” I thought.
Several things make the Lockheed Constellation named Columbine II a significant piece of aviation history: Its service as the presidential aircraft for the 34th president; the only former presidential aircraft sold to a private owner; and most notably perhaps, it’s the first presidential aircraft to use the universally recognized call sign of Air Force One used whenever the president is on board any aircraft.
The historic “Connie,” as Constellations are known in aviation circles, was on its way to Bridgewater, Virginia to undergo a cosmetic restoration. Plans call for the plane to be configured just as it was when transporting the president and first lady in the early 1950s, then displayed at airshows.
Stopping in Mount Pleasant was not just a random navigation decision. Mount Pleasant native Scott Glover’s Mid-America Flight Museum in the Northeast Texas city played a key role in the mechanical restoration that brought the plane back to airworthy condition after many years of sitting at an Arizona airport. The Texas stop was convenient, in terms of breaking up the nine-hour trip from Arizona to Virginia, but it was also selected to note the museum’s efforts in getting the plane back in the air, and give the city’s residents a glimpse of surviving history.
When I heard about the planned stopover up the road in Titus County, I knew I had to be there for a number of compelling reasons. First, as an old pilot and aviation buff, if there’s anything I get excited about as much as old cars, it’s old airplanes. Second, I vividly recall news stories as a youngster in the 1950s about President Eisenhower with pictures and mentions of Columbine. And, as a Mount Pleasant native, friend of the Glover family, and fan of the Mid-America Flight Museum, the opportunity was simply something I could not miss.
Numerous articles detailing the aircraft’s history can be found online, including the Mid-America Flight Museum’s Facebook page, or just pop “Columbine II” into Google for enough information to keep even a speed reader busy for a couple of days. But, a Reader’s Digest version for quick background here is that this Air Force Constellation tail number 8610 served as a presidential aircraft for a couple of years until Columbine III, another Constellation, went into service. During it’s tenure, confusion over the plane’s tail number coinciding with a commercial flight bearing the same number in 1953 led to a near miss prompting the creation of the Air Force One call sign. It was a backup for Columbine III for a short time before seeing service in other assignments and eventually being retired to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, the large outdoor military storage facility in the desert for retired and “mothballed” aircraft.
The Connie was sold by the government to a private owner as a part of a package deal of several Constellations in the late 60s and was almost cut up for scrap before the aircraft’s heritage was discovered. A second owner returned it to flying condition around 1990, but the plane was once again relegated to a long nap in the Arizona desert awaiting its next step in destiny. That happened about this time last year, and mechanical restoration to get the plane back in the air, with Mid-America Flight Museum personnel assisting, was competed just last week.
The Constellation is an icon from the era of propeller driven commercial airliners. It was one of the last of the breed and remained in service several years even after jets began replacing propellers. The sight of Columbine II completing its approach into Mount Pleasant last week personified the beauty of the plane’s porpoise shaped fuselage and distinctive triple rudder tail design. It was breathtakingly elegant as it floated toward the runway, touched down and rolled out on landing gear tall enough to elevate it well above other planes. The sound of the four 2,500 horsepower 18-cylinder radial engines as it taxied to the ramp gave rise to goose bumps on my arms. However, the symphony of that many cylinders rumbling in delightful cacophony is pure pleasure to any vintage airplane buff’s “music appreciation” senses.
My camera stayed busy for a couple of hours capturing images of the majestic airship, as well as the Mid-America Flight Museum’s stunning North American B-25 WWII bomber, God and Country, that had served as escort for the Arizona to Texas leg. Mellowing in the thought of Columbine being in Mount Pleasant called to mind another time that the Mount Pleasant airport was host to presidential history.
It was a night sometime about 1964, give or take a year. I have a clipping from the old Mount Pleasant Daily Times documenting the event. However, my somewhat-sorta filing system defied attempts to locate the article, so I’m flying solo from memory on this one.
A student at MPHS and a member of the local Explorer Scout Post, I was part of the crowd control program for the scheduled arrival of President Lyndon B. Johnson at the old airport on the other side of Highway 271 and closer toward town from the new airport where I stood last week photographing Columbine. The president was coming to town for a celebratory function honoring a local citizen and friend at the National Guard Armory on North Jefferson.
Darkness arrived prior to the president as onlookers crowded the airport, many in disbelief that the president was actually coming to the small East Texas community. Then, the presidential aircraft’s landing lights appeared. The plane touched down and taxied to an apron close to the terminal building and a car awaiting the chief executive. Explorer Scouts were posted along a designated walkway and instructed to assist in reminding the crowd to stay off the walkway.
President Johnson stepped out of the airplane, waving and smiling, and the night sky lit up with flash bulbs. The crowd cheered and clamored to get a glimpse, waving outstretched arms, each hoping the president would shake his or her hand. Young scouts stood with backs to the crowd and arms spread wide attempting to keep the walkway clear. I looked to my left as the president neared, surrounded by secret service personnel. He made his way along the narrow path, waving, tipping his hat and shaking hands before pausing in front of me. He smiled, grabbed my hand, shook it vigorously and said, “Nice uniform, son. Thanks.” Then quickly, he and his entourage moved on to the car and off to the event on the other side of town leaving me among the rapidly dispersing crowd. All I could think was, “You just shook hands with the president of the United States.”
The crowd was gone in short order and I went home to nearby Redbud Street where I charged in the house to tell my parents, “I shook the president’s hand tonight.” My dad smiled and exclaimed, “Well how about that.” My father pretty much voted Democratic in those days, and I’m reasonably sure that he cast his vote for “Landslide” Lyndon Johnson in his resounding victory over Republican Barry Goldwater.
Seeing and photographing the first Air Force One last week at Mount Pleasant was pretty heady stuff for an old pilot and airplane buff. Just about as heady as shaking the president’s hand at the Mount Pleasant airport was to a teenager in the 1960s.