Air-Minded: Singin’ the Jackie Kennedy Blues (Updated 6/20/19)

So yesterday, Donald Trump finally gave us a glimpse of the paint schemes he’s considering for new Air Force One aircraft.

Screen Shot 2019-06-13 at 8.00.55 AM

I was prepared to hate anything he came up with, but I have to say these designs aren’t bad. I mean, given Trump’s garish notions of what constitutes good taste, he might have decided to follow a previous president’s lead:

VC-118 Independence

Yes, that’s Harry Truman’s old ride, The Independence. Admit it, you wouldn’t have put it past Trump to come up with something like that, now, would you? I know a lot of us feared he was up to something even worse:

air-force-one-remodel (1)

Actually, I’m sorry I posted that image. Don’t want to give him any ideas.

Every Monday at Pima Air and Space Museum, I stop my tram in front of an airplane formerly used by two presidents and their families, the Kennedys and the Johnsons, and explain how we got to the Air Force One livery we all know today.

VC-118A Liftmaster

VC-118 used by Presidents Kennedy & Johnson

Air_Force_One_over_Mt._Rushmore

VC-25 used by current presidents


Here’s the short version of the story: prior to the Kennedys there was no standard paint scheme for presidential aircraft. Roosevelt’s Sacred Cow was polished aluminum, as were Eisenhower’s Columbines. Truman’s Independence was a one-off. The first jets added to the presidential fleet in 1959 were white with red noses and tails. The VC-118 in the left photo, above, was silver and white when Kennedy took office and began using it as an Air Force One. The one thing early presidential aircraft had in common was prominent “U.S. Air Force” lettering above the cabin windows.

The Kennedys moved into the White House in January 1961. The first designated Air Force One jet (SAM 26000, the famous plane we all think of as the “Kennedy Jet”) was going to be delivered in October 1962. That gave JFK and Jackie almost two years to plan what it was going to look like. They hired an American industrial designer, Raymond Loewy, to help them with the design. Loewy was primarily responsible for the famous two-tone blue and white paint scheme, but JFK and Jackie worked with him every step of the way, and the current livery (seen in the photos above) still bears their touches: the gold stripe down the side was Jackie’s (as was the interior design of the Kennedy Jet); the switch from “U.S. Air Force” to “United States of America” was JFK’s (he even picked the typeface, similar to that used on the Declaration of Independence).

The Kennedy Jet was delivered on schedule in October 1962. The old silver & white VC-118 currently on display at my museum was repainted with the new design, and every Air Force One aircraft since has worn it. If you want to read a more detailed version of this story, click here.

I know I’m supposed to oppose Trump’s redesign, and until I saw the sketches he unveiled yesterday I did. Partly out of fear he’d insist on something tasteless, partly out of general opposition to everything Trump does and is likely to do, partly because Trump has repeatedly described the blue of the current Air Force One livery as a “Jackie Kennedy color” … and, indeed, partly out of my personal respect for the legacy left us by our one true royal family, the Kennedys.

Trump’s motives may be entirely partisan, but nothing stays the same, and it isn’t written down anywhere that Air Force One can’t have a new look. Each of the four new designs he showed yesterday is conservative, understated, and dignified … the exact virtues of the Kennedy design I talk up to museum visitors. Like the Kennedy design, these new designs include the presidential seal, “United States of America” lettering, and the American flag on the tail. It’s hard to tell from a fuzzy television screen grab, but there might even be a gold stripe between the blue belly and the red running down the middle.

And honestly, who can argue with red, white, and blue?

Update (6/20/19): Today Voice of America White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman was able to take a photo of a model in the Oval Office and post it to Twitter. The model has a gold stripe between the blue belly and the red stripe running down the fuselage. I thought I’d seen it in the earlier, fuzzier image shown on TV, and now I see it’s definitely there. Maybe a part of Jackie’s Air Force One legacy will live on after all.

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© 2019, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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2 comments to Air-Minded: Singin’ the Jackie Kennedy Blues (Updated 6/20/19)

  • Reliza

    I still prefer the blue. Such a pretty plane.

  • My friend Dave sent a note:

    Paul, Glad to see Loewy get credit for the Kennedy jet paint. I am assuming you knew he was also the early 1950s designer for the Studebaker cars, love em or hate em, they were ahead of their time with a lot of features. Most significantly, the original 1963 Avanti with round headlamp trim, and then the 1964 Avanti, where they squared the trim some. When Studebaker (original builder of Conestoga freight wagons) finally went under, Avanti models were then produced by the Canadian company using the same design from Loewy.

    Keep on blogging!

    My response:

    Thanks, Dave. I saw an article last night that said Loewy was French, so I did some digging. He was born in France but was a dual citizen of the US (naturalized here in the 1930s). I think it’s only proper that Americans call a naturalized countryman an American, so I’m not going to change anything I wrote in this or earlier posts mentioning Loewy. Was also surprised to learn Loewy was nearly 70 when the Kennedys hired him … he was born in 1893.

    As has been the case for the last few years, aviation-related subjects are the ones that engage me most. I’m going to have to devise a new index page soon. I worry readers won’t scroll down to see all the article links on the current one.

    Paul

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