It’s a crying shame, but things like this do happen.
The plane that once served President Dwight Eisenhower, the first aircraft to be given the Air Force One call sign, a state-of-the-art machine during its heyday, is now a rusting relic at a small airport outside of Tucson, Arizona. It’s waiting for a new owner.
The Lockheed Constellation used to be luxurious aircraft, Marana Airport manager Steve Miller tells Fox News. It was then called Columbine II in honor of the state flower of first lady Mamie Eisenhower’s native Colorado.
“It included sleeping berths, marble flooring and a mahogany desk for the president,” he says.
The desk, in fact, was where Eisenhower wrote his historic “Atoms for Peace” speech, which called for harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful uses. He delivered it before the UN General Assembly on Dec. 8, 1953.
So how did such a once-magnificent piece of history ended in a forgotten part of the Arizona desert?
Tim Crowley, the grandson of a past owner who is trying to help the current owners find a new home for the plane, says Columbine II is simply “something that’s fallen through the cracks”.
In 1954, a later model of Lockheed Constellation was commissioned as the presidential plane. Columbine II was repainted and used to ferry VIPs for many years, including then US vice president Richard Nixon and Queen Elizabeth II. But eventually, the plane was forgotten.
In 1970, it was sold at auction in a group of five aircraft to Crowley’s grandfather Mel Christler, a businessman who wanted to retrofit the planes and use them to dust crops and fight forest fires. He had no idea it was once Air Force One.
Because there was something wrong with its landing gear, Christler decided to use it for parts. But later he received a call from the Smithsonian and was told of its illustrious past.
“They told him that it was the first plane used by Eisenhower as president,” says Crowley. “So he decided to restore it with another fellow named Harry Oliver … and they flew it around in the early ’90s.”
Attempts to sell the plane fell through and, after Christler died, it eventually ended up at Marana, battling the elements, forgotten by almost everyone.
Although it’s obviously long past its prime, “it’s actually in very good shape”, according to Timothy Coons, who served as flight engineer on the plane’s last flight 10 years ago.
But about US$200,000 is needed to get it back to flying condition, and about a few millions to return it to its former glorious state. Also a new home had to be found to house and maintain the aircraft.
“There are several museums that have expressed interest in it, and one thing I’ve found is museums don’t have any money,” says Crowley.
The owners are asking US$1.5 million for the plane, although Crowley says that is “very negotiable”.
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