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Calling the President's Plane
From Air Force One to Executive One, what makes a presidential callsign
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, I’m talking about the technicalities of callsigns for the presidential aircraft, as a followup to my recent Foreign Policy article about Richard Nixon’s wild ride on United as president. (Haven’t read it? Read it!)
Calling the President’s Plane
Presidents love Air Force One.
Pedants, of course, will note that the VC-25A, the familiar Boeing 747s modified for presidential use during the 1980s, isn’t technically called “Air Force One”. That name is a callsign applied to any Air Force aircraft on which the president flies, including the pre-George H.W. Bush 707s, a small JetStar jet, and other aircraft. (If you’re so inclined, you can visit many of these aircraft, including one mounted like a trophy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.)
Those pedants will also gleefully bore you with the information that the helicopter the president flies on from the White House lawn is Marine One, because it’s flown by the Marine pilots of HMX-1. Deeply pedantic nuts will inform you that before 1976 the president rode Army One when ferried by Army pilots (and, yes, they were frequently the same helicopter, just operated by different branches). The most insufferable will remind you that George W. Bush took Navy One to an aircraft carrier (where he then delivered the Mission Accomplished speech). Galaxy-brain presidential anoraks will add that Richard Nixon’s United flight (hey! there’s an article you should read) was named “Executive One”.
Or, um, was it?
I tried to run this down for the Foreign Policy article. I wanted to know if the callsign “Executive One” had ever actually been used.
Let’s stipulate that no normal person cares. Let’s also recognize that no normal person cares all that much about anything. And finding out whether the callsign Executive One was applied or not became a side quest in writing the article and pinning down why Nixon dumped Air Force One (and the press corps) to sulk in his fraudulently acquired Pacific coast mansion.
The evidence was way more mixed than you’d think. The most I could find was a reference by the United pilot that he had enjoyed priority on his flight from IAD to LAX, but not any evidence that the callsign was used. I reached out to the FAA, because this is a callsign (like all the “Ones”) regulated by the FAA, but they referred me to the White House Historical Society—who wouldn’t have the records that would be needed to answer this question.
The callsign naming system was born when a plane transporting President Eisenhower shared a callsign with an Eastern Airlines flight in the same airspace. And it was unusually complete. A thorough Google Books search (best I could do, research-wise, during pandemic) turned up references to the callsigns in the early 1960s in air traffic control manuals.
This pretty conclusively proved that air traffic controllers should have known that a civil aircraft with the president aboard should have been called “Executive One” on December 26, 1973, when Nixon came aboard. But that’s not the same as saying that it was used.
And there are reasons to be skeptical. Nixon’s flight was secret, even from the FAA, practically until it was in the air. Was that enough time to change the callsigns for a cross-country flight? Were those changes actually made?
I’m not sure. A lot of Web sites assert it was. But without more evidence, I’m not sure that we can say for certain.
Why does this matter? First, it mattered for the article because there’s so much written about the Nixon flight on United (and the Nixon presidency in general) that has the ring of truth, and is even sourced to contemporary documents, but just isn’t true, accurate, or supported. This would have been one more detail to support that theme.
Second, it matters in a larger sense because American political culture remains weirdly prone to genuflecting to The Office of the Presidency in a way that even Americans before the Second World War would have found jarring and royalistic. Whatever the opposite of lese-majeste is, we practice it. Over the centuries, the gradual accretion of presidential mansions, resorts, shrines, holy places, and state vehicles has brought in every trapping of monarchy that Jefferson or Jackson would have rejected. (Washington probably would have liked it.)
I think that this is both natural, in the sense that it’s explicable for people to get weird about The Most Powerful Man in the World, and unnatural, in the sense that the first citizen of a democratic republic shouldn’t be quite so elevated and the trappings of their office shouldn’t be venerated.
Setting the record straight about just part of the litany of Boring Facts About Presidents that pedants love to recite would have been delicious. Alas! It doesn’t always pan out.
The third and final reason is that checking your sources is always a good idea. At the very least I could explain why I left out the “Executive One” tidbit if anyone asked. And in the end there was enough meat in the story (a presidential birthday lunch at McDonald’s???) that I didn’t need it. Someday, though, we can get to the bottom of this.