The Liberty Gazette
July 1, 2014Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Covered in dust the tired old airliner sits in a dirt field in Arizona’s blazing sun. Occasionally blue smoke belches out of the exhaust stacks and the engines wheeze and pop to life as a small army of volunteers work to return this aircraft to airworthy condition. It has been over 15 years since the plane landed at this airport north of Tucson. Prior to that it only flew sporadically, at one time parked for 20 years in the airplane bone yard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. As the sweltering heat baked the aircraft it was sanded by dust devils and sand storms. Pieces were removed to make other airplanes fly. Then it awaited a slow death from the scrapper’s torch.
Built by Lockheed in 1948, this big, four-propeller-engine "Constellation" was delivered to the United States Air Force and designated a C-121A. The Military Air Transport Command flew military personnel in this "Connie" from New York to Keflavik, Iceland and back. Later she was modified and put back to work as a VC-121A, a VIP version of the military kind.
As a VIP carrier her passengers included the Secretary of the Air Force, Generals, Admirals, Statesmen, Kings, Queens and a President and flew under the call sign "Air Force 8610" (because the serial number was 48-610) until an incident in 1953 when the Air Force entered the same airspace as Eastern Airlines flight 8610 and the air traffic controller’s instructions became confusing. President Eisenhower happened to be on board, so attention to the critical nature of the confusion was escalated, leading to the creation of the call sign "Air Force One".
Since then, many airplanes have carried the name "Air Force One", now the designation of any Air Force aircraft the President is aboard. Likewise, any Marine Corps helicopter is designated Marine One when the President is on board.
President Eisenhower actually had three of those VIP Constellations, the first of which was his before he became President. He nicknamed them all "Columbine" because his wife Mamie was from Colorado, and the Columbine their state flower.
Where are they now? The original "Columbine" sits not far from the second one outside the wind-whipped Pima Air & Space Museum across the street from Davis-Monthan AFB. Columbine III is in the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
The Air Force had sold Columbine II to a man who does aerial spraying as part of a package deal, a lot of five airplanes. The buyer really wanted the four airplanes that were in relatively good condition, but that other one was in such poor shape they left it at the Air Force base to be stripped for parts.
Fast-forward about ten years. A researcher from the Smithsonian contacted the now retired aerial sprayer to see if he knew the location of that one old airplane. As it was, he still owned it and was surprised to discover its heritage.
Another decade flew by before the old girl received new life and flew the airshow circuit for a time. Alas, she was then parked out in the elements again.
The future of the first "Air Force One" is unknown, but the caretaker hired by the current owner is looking for a museum willing to preserve this piece of history.