As the old saying goes: what goes up must come down. Unless, it seems, you happen to be Air Force One – because the aircraft of the President of the USA, it turns out, has somehow managed to take off more times than it has ever landed.
How is that possible? No, you’re not forgetting some terrible mid-air explosion or anything, and there’s not some backup commander-in-chief kept permanently airborne just in case everything goes tits-up down here on Earth. In fact, it all comes down to a quirk of presidential protocol – and, weirdly, one of the most famous political scandals in US history.
What is Air Force One?
Today, Air Force One – the “President’s office in the sky,” per the White House – usually refers to one of two specific planes: a pair of highly customized Boeing 747-200B series aircraft, designated by the Air Force as a model VC-25A.
They’re both undoubtedly iconic aircraft: “Emblazoned with the words ‘United States of America,’ the American flag, and the Seal of the President of the United States,” notes the White House, “it is an undeniable presence wherever it flies.”
The inside of the plane is no less impressive. Firstly, it’s huge, spanning 372 square meters (4,000 square feet) of floor space over three stories and containing its own office, conference room, and a medical suite that can even function as an operating room if necessary. And then there are all the cutting-edge tech features: electronics that have been made impervious to electromagnetic interference, advanced secure communications equipment, mid-air refueling capability, and, perhaps most importantly of all, a 50-inch plasma screen TV.
But even though that’s what people tend to mean when they say “Air Force One”, it’s not technically the truth.
While most of our US readers are likely familiar with this little factoid, others may be surprised to learn that Air Force One – despite often being described as the “president’s personal jet” or similar – does not actually refer to any individual plane at all.
Instead, it’s a call sign devoted to any US Air Force plane that happens to be currently carrying the president – whether that be a Boeing VC-25A or a propellor-driven airliner from the ‘40s.
That’s the first clue as to how the presidential plane can have possibly taken off more times than it’s landed – so what’s the rest of the riddle?
Nixon and Watergate
The second half of this mathematical mystery – that is, how a plane can possibly have taken off more times than it’s landed – comes down to one of the most infamous political scandals in US political history: Watergate.
It all started in the early hours of June 17, 1972, when a group of burglars were caught stealing top-secret documents and bugging the phones of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex of buildings in Washington, DC.
It was an election year: the incumbent, Republican Richard Nixon, was facing down Democratic rival George McGovern. Nixon had little to fear from his opponent – he never polled below 50 percent and would eventually win a 49-state landslide with a more than 20 percent lead in the popular vote.
But the Republican was notoriously paranoid and insecure, and if there was no way to legally guarantee his success that November, then he had no qualms about taking alternative routes to ensure his reelection. Among the more aggressive tactics used by Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President – also known as CREEP – was what would eventually be revealed as illegal espionage against the opposing party.
At first, Nixon vehemently denied any connection to the break-in. But the evidence soon started to pile up against him: when the Watergate invaders were caught, for instance, they were found to have copies of the re-election committee’s White House phone number on them. Just a few days after the burglary, too, the perps were sent hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money by the president – a practice known in legal circles as “pretty darn sus, at the very least.”
But as bad as all that was, Nixon had to make things worse for himself. By directing the CIA to impede the FBI’s investigation of the crime, his potential rap sheet grew from illegal espionage to obstruction of justice and abuse of presidential power.
With the eventual discovery and requisition of Nixon’s bizarrely obsessive recordings of every conversation held in the Oval Office, the president’s involvement in the conspiracy became undeniable. In July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Nixon for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress, and his removal from office was made all but certain.
So, on August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first and so far only president to resign from the top job. In a televised address the previous evening, he diplomatically told Americans that, “because of the Watergate matter,” he “might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary” to continue as president.
“Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow,” he announced. “Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”
The presidential flight that never landed
As promised, Nixon left the White House for good the next day. At 10 am, he, his wife, and his daughters were escorted to the White House lawn where a helicopter was waiting to take them to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. From there, the former first family boarded the presidential airplane for the last time, and flew back home to California.
By 12:05, the US had a new commander-in-chief: Gerald Ford.
But as you may have noticed, that leaves about two presidential hours unaccounted for. And that is precisely where this Air Force One tidbit gets its origin.
Because Nixon left the White House so early that day, he was already in the air – specifically, he was 39,000 feet above Jefferson City, Missouri – at noon, when the transfer of power from himself to Ford occurred.
In other words: officially, Nixon was President when the plane set off, but not by the time it landed.
According to the rules of Air Force One, however, that means that the aircraft that left Andrews Air Base that morning – a Boeing VC-137C that Nixon had previously, and perhaps optimistically, dubbed the “Spirit of ‘76” – bore the presidential call sign when it took off.
But shortly after noon, and only about a third of the way to its final destination of San Clemente, California, it lost the iconic designation. It was no longer carrying the President, and so it had transformed mid-flight from Air Force One to plain old SAM 27000.
Despite the pomp with which it had departed, the plane landed without the official call sign, and carrying only private citizens. Ever since then, Air Force One has the distinction of having set off one more time than it’s landed – an impressive statistic for any aircraft.
Here’s hoping that, if only for the sake of symmetry, some future president decides to be sworn in at 39,000 feet, thus finally bringing an end to this strange mismatch in flight numbers.