The internet has lit up over the past couple of weeks, abuzz over the “discovery” of one of President Eisenhower’s Lockheed Constellations, reputed to have dodged the scrapper and presently languishing at the Marana Airport near Tucson, Arizona. Features on the plane have been popping up everywhere from NPR to Fox News, Local Arizona papers to the New York Daily News, all presenting the same “lost plane” narrative. Far from being a “lost,” this Connie last flew about ten years ago and has been for sale for quite a while.
The provenance of the plane is without question, it was indeed Eisenhower’s Lockheed, a VC-121A named Colombine II in honor of the state flower of Mamie Eisenhower’s adopted home state of Colorado. It was also the plane that the president was in when the incident ocuured that caused all presidential flights to carry the -One flight call sign, Air Force One, Marine One, once even Navy One. The 1953 incident occurred when an Eastern Airlines commercial flight 8610 had the same call sign as this plane’s (Air Force 8610). As a result, of the confusion caused to aircraft controllers by two planes with the same call sign, there was nearly a mid-air collision.
There seems to be some controversy as to whether this particular plane ever actually carried the call sign Air Force One as it was used as a back up plane from 1954 and the Air Force One call sign wasn’t instituted until 1959. No matter, this is a historic plane worthy of preservation, in fact it’s sister ship, Lockheed VC-121E “Columbine III” is restored and on exhibit at the Presidential Gallery of the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton Ohio.
This particular plane was delivered to the US Air Force as a Constellation C-121A in November 1948 and spent a year flying between MacArthur Field on Long Island, New York and Keflavik, Iceland. The plane was returned to Lockheed in Burbank, California for conversion to VC-121A specs in November 1949. In 1950 it was assigned to the capitol’s Washington National Airport where is served as a VIP aircraft before being assigned to presidential duties in November 1952. The plane was demoted to secondary status in 1954 upon the arrival of Columbine III and served as the presidential backup plane until 1955.
The plane was then operated by Pan American Airways, registered as N9907F as “Clipper Fortuna” on special assignment to the Government of Thailand from May to June 1955, then returned to flying VIP missions for the remainder of its USAF career. The plane was retired by USAF and sent to Davis Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona for storage in April of 1968. The plane was later sold at auction, along with five other surplussed Constellations, to the Christler Flying Service in May of 1970. While it was intended to be converted to an agricultural spray plane, it never was, and instead became a source for spare parts for the other Connies in Christler’s fleet. By 1980 the plane had been stripped of most of her useful parts, but by the middle of the decade, perhaps realizing that had a piece of potentially valuable machinery Christler began reassembling the plane, using the remaining Constellations to make it airworthy again. By 1990 the plane was in flying condition and even made some appearances at air shows. In 1998 the plane was flown in to Scottsdale, Arizona and offered at auction for $1.5 Million, though did not sell, and was flown down to Santa Fe before being flown again for storage at Marana in 2003, where it’s been for the past decade, though it’s hardly forgotten, in 2005 it was again offered for sale, this time for $3.2 Million.
Why the sudden rush of media coverage for this “discovered,” “forgotten” plane? Our guess is the owners are motivated to get the old girl sold at this point, sooner than later. Nothing like some media buzz to generate interest. The plane is certainly worthy of preservation, hell at this point all Constellations are, presidential pedigree notwithstanding. Here’s hoping she goes to a good home!