The Lockheed Constellation was Produced from 1943 to 1958
The push to develop the Constellation came from aviation giant Howard Hughes, whose vision for a 20 passenger transcontinental airliner was brought to life–and improved upon–by the Lockheed Company. Lockheed produced 856 Constellation aircraft from 1943 to 1958.
Eisenhower’s Wartime Experience with a Constellation leads to Use as Presidential Aircraft
As World War II came to a close, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower flew in a Constellation he named Columbine after his wife Mamie’s adopted home state of Colorado.
Eisenhower’s fondness for Constellation aircraft continued. When he took office in 1953, a Lockheed Constellation that he called Columbine II became the official presidential aircraft.
President Eisenhower flew approximately 63,844 miles aboard Columbine II, and his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech was written while on board.
Mid-air Confusion Leads to First Air Force One Call Sign
In the spring of 1954, President Eisenhower was flying over Richmond, Virginia aboard the Columbine II. The aircraft checked in with Air Traffic Control using the call sign Air Force 8610. At the same time and in the same airspace, Eastern Airlines Flight 8610 was also contacting Air Traffic control. The confusion from this incident was enough to inspire the creation of a unique call sign, Air Force One. Air Traffic Control used the name from then on whenever the president was aboard an aircraft, although Air Force One wouldn’t become the official title until 1962.
The First Air Force One Auctioned
In 1970, five non-descript Constellation aircraft were sold at a government surplus auction at Davis Monthan Air Force Base. Columbine II was included in the lot and was purchased by businessman Mel Christler. Christler owned an aerial spraying company and planned to use the planes in his operation.
It wasn’t until 1980, after a call from the Smithsonian, that Christler finally learned of the plane’s historic significance.
Forgotten in the Desert, Columbine II Waits for a New Owner
In 1989, Christler and his partners put great effort into restoring the aircraft and exhibited it at a number of airshows throughout the following year.
Convinced that Columbine II should remain in the public sphere but unable to continue the extensive upkeep and restoration needed, Christler began to search for a new owner. For the next eight years, Columbine II was stored in New Mexico. In 1998, Columbine II was moved to Arizona where it would remain for the next almost 20 years.