CHARLOTTE, NC, December 2, 2014 – Somewhere near Tucson a national treasure sits abandoned amid the whispering sands and blistering sun of the Arizona desert.
Like Grisabella, the glamour cat in the Broadway musical Cats, Columbine II has become a forlorn relic of a bygone day that should not be forgotten.
Columbine II was actually the first Air Force One. Its inaugural flight with that official designation took place when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States.
For that reason alone, Columbine II should be preserved as an icon of American history. Instead it rests on the burning desert floor of a southern Arizona air field that is part of Marana Regional Airport. With no hangar to shelter Columbine II from the vicious rays of the sun, the plane is gradually eroding both inside and out.
In its glory days, Columbine II featured marble floors. Today, however, it is a forgotten, decaying, desolate metal shell with a once glorious past that sits fading into history due to neglect.
The Lockheed VC-121 Constellation 48-610 was not the first presidential aircraft, but it was the first to fly under the banner of “Air Force One.”
The name “Air Force One” resulted from an incident in 1953 when President Eisenhower was flying aboard what was then known as Air Force 8610. An Eastern Airlines commercial plane with the same flight number, 8610, accidentally entered Columbine II’s airspace, nearly resulting in a midair collision.
Air Force One soon became the official name of the presidential aircraft. The original moniker, Columbine II, came from the state flower of Colorado in honor of Mamie Eisenhower’s home state.
Despite its notoriety however, the first Air Force One is a well kept secret known only to a small number of people. And so it sits, old, decrepit and decomposing in the blazing harshness of the Arizona sun.
Columbine II had a short-lived lifespan as the president’s plane, being replaced to become the backup aircraft in 1954.
But the history of the original Air Force One continued when it served another brief period as a civilian carrier for Pan American. Like Barack Obama, President Eisenhower was an avid golfer, and the plane carried him for the last time on Oct. 25, 1959 from Augusta, Ga., home of The Masters golf tournament, to Washington, D.C.
Until 1968 Columbine II was a VIP transport plane at Washington National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base before it was retired and flown to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. There it was fitted with mismatched landing gear, stripped of its identity and began its gradual decline into oblivion.
Air Force One the first was sold in a surplus auction in 1970 to Mel Christler of Christler Flying Service. It was intended to suffer the indignity of becoming an aerial spray plane but the landing gear problem prevented that from happening.
Christler was unaware of the plane’s history for nearly a decade. It was not until 1980 when Robert Mikesh, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, contacted him that Christler knew what he had purchased.
Following a $150,000 restoration in 1990, the first Air Force One made a rousing comeback when it was reintroduced to the public at the Eisenhower Centennial celebration in Abilene, Kan.
Later the plane made several air show appearances before it was parked in Roswell and Santa Fe, N.M. until 1998.
Several attempts have been made to sell the original Air Force One at auction without success. And so today, an important piece of American history sits idly in Arizona gradually fading into the desert sands.
The plane is now owned by Christler’s business partner, Harry Oliver of Santa Fe.
It is estimated that the cost to refurbish Air Force One to its former glory would be about $200,000 and take approximately a month. A mere pittance by today’s standards.
A round of golf by the sitting president costs more than that given the security and the entourage that must accompany him during his appointed round.
The current caretaker is a contractor name Timothy Coons who continues to seek out a museum that is willing to take the plane and restore it.
Perhaps one day the first Air Force One, like old Grisabella, will be preserved so that it, too, can finds its way to the “Heavyside Layer” and the appropriate glory it deserves.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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