Trains, Boats & Planes | 18 December 2017The Air Force One Prototype Share article facebook twitter google pinterest Ever wonder how and when the first Air Force One came to be? Well, the first Air Force One was developed in the final years of World War II, but it was not for the President. The first Air Force One was actually utilized by Supreme Commander General Dwight Eisenhower as he was ferried across Europe both during and after hostilities. In less than a decade he would be riding in a much different Air Force One as President of the United States. From the book Warbird Factory is the story of how the Air Force One prototype came to fruition at North American Aviation’s (later to become Boeing) factories. All B-25D and B-25J models—a total of 6,608 airplanes—were built at the North American Aviation’s Kansas City plant. It took two years to achieve a sustained production rate of about three hundred airplanes per month on the automobile-style moving assembly line. Eisenhower’s B-25 The year 1944 found Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as the supreme commander of the multi-national Allied military force then engaged in an epic struggle against the Nazi war machine. A frequent flyer with an eclectic mix of aircraft available to meet his every need, Eisenhower took full advantage of the mobility they provided. In February, a brand new B-25J was randomly selected by army air forces from the NAA’s [North American Aviation] Kansas City factory for Eisenhower’s exclusive use. Still outfitted with machine guns and wearing camouflage paint, serial number 43-4030, one of about three hundred built that month, was ferried to NAA headquarters at Inglewood, arriving on February 29. The Field Service department immediately began extensive modifications in accordance with a freshly inked army air forces purchase contract, at the same time as their colleagues were working on the ill-fated NA-98X. In an arrangement that seems bizarre today, the modifications to Eisenhower’s B-25J were carried out at the same time as the preparation of the engineering documentation relating to the work, which consisted of about a hundred drawings on 8-by-10-inch vellum. Eisenhower chats with an officer in front of a North American combat plane—likely an A-36 Apache, which was a variant of the P-51 Mustang. Army photograph via the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum Field Services hand-picked a small cadre of the large plant’s most capable mechanics and technicians, who were then divided into two work shifts. Factory engineer Donald H. Kennedy was designated to oversee and document the overhaul. Scrupulous records were required since NAA wanted to be able to defend their work should the airplane ever be lost to suspected structural failure with an American icon board. Also, this meant that should additional orders be received, the modifications to the airplane could be quickly replicated. Factory records identify it as an “RB-25J(3)”—“Rebuilt” B-25 number 3. Photographs taken before and during the modifications confirm what Kennedy wrote in a letter dated 1982: “No effort was made to hide work on the special B-25 which stood in the open among others undergoing changes too late to include on the production line. Obviously, the best concealment was none at all.” Eisenhower’s seat was like a throne. The telephone could be used for ground communication or as an interphone with the flight crew. Only the best and most modern radio equipment of the era was installed in the Supreme Commander’s airplane. The project began with removal of all paint and armaments. Kennedy held frequent consultations with a number of specialists who visited the work site. The Stress Department engineer would stop by for at least thirty minutes daily. Contributors from Heat and Vent, Fuel Systems, and an “electrical man” combined their skills to ensure project integrity. Kennedy noted: “I was impressed by the worker who accomplished the life raft installation in the tail gun compartment entirely on his own, with no drawings, so that a cable from the pilot could open the hatch and deploy the raft.” The airplane was configured to seat ten people comfortably, including the pilots and other flight crew. An older worker, experienced in woodworking, proudly crafted a walnut cabinet with compartments for food and “one for dry ice to keep the booze cold. A coffee thermos with spigot was on the side.” The airplane may have been built with on-board liquor service but Eisenhower confidants later wrote that he was never known to consume more than a single drink per day and had a phobia about the Russians’ prodigious consumption of vodka. The modifications altered the weight and potentially the balance of Eisenhower’s airplane. Here, it sits on scales for final weighing before delivery. The top of the bomb bay was lowered so it could be used as a bunk; a bulletproof auxiliary fuel tank occupied what remained of the bomb bay; a folding map table extended the full width of the narrow passenger compartment; the lavatory was relocated further aft and enclosed; a telephone was installed for contact with the pilot or ground stations; the rear entry door was reworked for easier access; the aircraft was shorn of turret and all other armaments; the nose was customized; and extra windows were installed in the aft fuselage. The airplane, now bearing the military designation VB-25J, was test flown, photographed, and accepted by army air forces for flyaway on May 12, 1944. After stops in Long Beach, California; Luke Field, Arizona; Pittsburg, Pennsylvania; and Manchester, New Hampshire, it reached the Eighth Air Force base in England. After receiving confirmation of its safe arrival, the builder received no further updates on its fate. Hoping for any shred of information about “his” airplane, Kennedy followed the war news closely. A War Department dispatch dated July 29, 1944, disclosed that General Eisenhower, in “air conditioned comfort,” had visited the front twice in a secretly constructed fast medium bomber with blue cloth upholstered armchairs, folding work table, and a telephone to observe allied armies just after the breakout at St. LÔ in Normandy. The dispatch identified the flight crew as Maj. Laurence J. Hansen, pilot; Capt. Richard F. Underwood, co-pilot; Capt. H. C. Nixon, navigator; Master Sgt. V. J. Romgosa, engineer; and Tech. Sgt. E. J. Behrous, radio operator. (The dispatch contained a bit of puffery since the B-25 had no air conditioning.) Eisenhower’s unmarked B-25 takes to the air at Inglewood on the day of its departure to Eighth Air Force in England. There were intermediate stops along the way. The dearth of additional information led Kennedy and other aviation historians to incorrectly speculate that Eisenhower seldom utilized it. However, recent research has turned up solid evidence that he used the B-25 frequently, but not exclusively, during the twelve months following the D-Day invasion of France, which began on June 6, 1944. The B-25J remains on public display at Ellsworth AFB [South Dakota]; its final resting place, like that of its most famous owner, is now on the Great Plains. Buy From an Online Retailer Explore the WWII history of the company that later became a part of Boeing and made more aircraft from 1938 to 1944 than any other company in the United States. During World War II, Los Angeles was the ultimate boom town. By the end of the war, the L.A. area had produced 17 percent of all of America’s war needs. North American Aviation, Inc. (NAA), operating out of their main Inglewood, California, plant, which is south of and adjacent to the city, was a key player in that work. From 1938 to 1944, NAA built over 40,000 aircraft, more than any other company in the United States. The bulk of them were of three iconic types designed by NAA: – The P-51 Mustang, arguably the best fighter of WWII. – B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, which saw worldwide combat. – Two-seat military pilot trainers, such as the AT-6 Texan. This is a fascinating story of a remarkable time in aviation history, when American businesses helped fund the arsenal of democracy that helped defeat the Axis powers. Warbird Factory tells this story with over 200 photographs, many of which come directly from the NAA/Boeing archives, where they have resided since WWII. This is an essential book for anyone interested in warbirds, aviation, Boeing/NAA, WWII, and/or the history of Southern California! 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