What incident 55 years ago demonstrated the need for a dedicated air traffic control call sign for the aircraft carrying the President of the United States as Air Force One?
In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower was flying aboard one of several presidential aircraft, a Lockheed VC-121E Constellation nicknamed Columbine II. The flight number for the President's aircraft was Air Force 8610, which flight controllers briefly confused with Eastern 8610, an Eastern Airlines passenger flight. And by confused, we mean assigned to the same airspace, which is the first step towards a mid-air collision. Eisenhower, being shepherded by more-than-competent pilots, was never in any danger, because his crew immediately caught the error and informed flight controllers of the issue. To prevent any such future potential disasters, however, the unique call sign Air Force One was adopted for any plane carrying the U.S. President.
Thus was established the rule, which extended to both the call sign of the President's helicopter, Marine One, and any fixed wing or rotary aircraft carrying the U.S. Vice President, which are known as Air Force Two and Marine Two, respectively.
That said, there are exceptions to this nomenclature. If either the President or Vice President is transported by any aircraft operated by branches of service other than the U.S. Air Force or U.S. Marine Corps, those craft are granted branch-specific call signs. For example, when hueys from the U.S. Air Force 1st Helicopter Squadron transport the Vice President, as is occasionally the case, these helicopters are granted the call sign Air Force Two.
Moreover, when President George W. Bush rode a Navy S-3 Viking jet to a carrier landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, that flight inaugurated the call sign Navy One.
Prior to 1976, the U.S. Army shared primary Presidential helicopter transport duty with the Marines, and as such, any Army helicopter transporting the President was designated Army One.
Theoretically, if the President or Vice President ever flew aboard a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft, either vehicle would inaugurate the call signs Coast Guard One or Coast Guard Two, but this has yet to actually happen.
President Richard Nixon is the only sitting U.S. President to ever fly in a civilian aircraft, as he did in 1973 to demonstrate confidence in the commercial airline industry during the energy crisis. While the President was onboard, the flight was known as Executive One. As members of the President's or Vice President's family often fly aboard civilian aircraft, these planes earn the call signs Executive One Foxtrot or Executive Two Foxtrot, respectively.
That's not just some consistently careful classification, it's a laboriously labeled example of executive Geek Trivia.
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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.