Eisenhower's Air Force One plane made last trip to Augusta

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and first lady Mamie Eisenhower greet a well-wisher during a 1960 visit to Augusta.

 

President Dwight D. Eisenhower climbed the steps to Air Force One on Oct. 25, 1959, in front of a crowd of more than 2,000 people at Bush Field.

He removed his cap, raised both arms in the air and basked in the applause as he ended his 23rd trip to Augusta.

It wasn’t Eisenhower’s last flight, by any means. His plane, however, was flying its last leg of its short journey as Air Force One.

The Lockheed VC-121 Constellation 48-610, which was the first to earn the distinction of Air Force One, now sits 2,000 miles away in a southern Arizona field. Named Columbine II after the state flower of Colorado, the home state of first lady Mamie Eisenhower, the plane has been left to rust away in a 10-acre parcel belonging to Marana Regional Airport.

“I think it’s one of these big secrets that, really, few people know that it’s out there,” airport manager Steve Miller told The Arizona Daily Star this month. “It’s sad that it’s just sitting out there, considering its history over the past 70 years.”

The plane left Augusta around 3:30 p.m. that Sunday on its way to Washington D.C., according to Col. William G. Draper’s trip log. Eisenhower, who had come to Augusta on an abrupt golf trip, was accompanied by Augusta National Golf Club co-founder Clifford Roberts.

Columbine II was built in California in 1948. The next year it was converted to carry VIPs and re-designated as a VC-121A.

In 1953, it became the official presidential aircraft until it was replaced in 1954, when it became the primary backup aircraft.

The aircraft served a brief civilian stint with Pan American before making its last trip to Augusta.

It served as a VIP transport at Washington National Airport and Maryland’s Andrews Air Force Base before it was retired and flown to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in 1968. It was stripped of its identity and fitted with mismatched landing gear.

Mel Christler of Christler Flying Service bought the aircraft, along with four others, in a 1970 surplus auction, not knowing its true identity. He hoped to convert it to an aerial sprayer, but the plane would not fly because of the landing gear problem.

Smithsonian Institution curator Robert Mikesh tracked down the plane’s whereabouts and contacted Christler in 1980. Christler and partners completed a $150,000 restoration in 1990, participating in the Eisenhower Centennial celebration in Abilene, Kan.

After appearances in air shows, the plane was parked in Roswell and Santa Fe, N.M., until 1998. Efforts to sell it at auction were unsuccessful, and it was parked at the Marana airport in 2005 in a lease agreement.

“In its glory days it had marbled floors,” Miller said. “Now it just looks like any old, beat-up aircraft sitting there.”

Timothy Coons, a contractor who serves as the plane’s caretaker, is looking for a museum willing to take it and restore it. He said it would take $200,000 and 30 days of work to restore.

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

 

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