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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Wings of Franklin Roosevelt

The Dixie Clipper and Sacred Cow

  • Matthew Costello Chief Education Officer, The Marlyne Sexton Chair in White House History, Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History

The first president to travel by airplane was actually a former president. On October 11, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt accompanied aviator Archibald Hoxsey for a short flight during the International Aviation Meet at Kinloch Field outside St. Louis, Missouri. The two men took off and circled the airfield twice in “three minutes and twenty seconds.” An enthusiastic Roosevelt waved at the crowds on the ground below, “most of whom were too dumbfounded and frightened to move,” remarked one reporter. In fact, the former president was gesturing so hard that Hoxsey barked at him, “Keep your hands on the rail, colonel!” After landing safely, Roosevelt turned to the pilot and shook his hand vigorously. “It was great—first class. It was the finest experience I ever have had…I wish I could stay up for an hour but I haven’t the time this afternoon,” chuckled Roosevelt.

Hurrying to his next event in Clayton, the former president mentioned his recent flight to the audience, telling them he traveled in an “airship” and that he would forever remember his time in St. Louis as the “only place that ever put me up in the air.”1 About two and a half months later Hoxsey set a flight altitude record of 11,474 feet on December 26, 1910. Five days later, while attempting to break his own mark, he tragically died when his biplane malfunctioned at 7,142 feet.2 While the innovation of man-piloted aircraft astonished Americans, it would be some time before it was considered safe enough for travelers, let alone sitting presidents.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt and pilot Archibald Hoxsey prepare for take-off at Kinloch Field during the International Aviation Meet, October 11, 1910.

Wikimedia Commons/Missouri History Museum

Theodore’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the first sitting president to travel by airplane during his time in office. He primarily used two airplanes for transportation: the Dixie Clipper and the Sacred Cow. During the 1930s, Pan American World Airways asked manufacturers to design an aircraft that would facilitate passenger travel and mail transport across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1936, the winning entry came from the Boeing Aircraft Company of Seattle, Washington. Pan Am contracted Boeing to build six 314 Clipper "flying boats" with an option for six more in the future. Twelve aircraft were eventually made, nine of which were operated by Pan Am, and the other three by British Overseas Airways Corporation. Measuring 106 feet in length with a wingspan of 152 feet, Boeing’s 314 Clipper was literally a colossus of the sky. It weighed nearly 41 tons, had a range of 3,500 miles, and held a cruising speed of 183 miles per hour. It also made intercontinental travel a comfortable experience. The aircraft was manned by a crew of 10, and could carry up to 70 passengers at a time. It featured a 14-person dining room, lounge, and group seating divided by compartments.3

The Dixie Clipper, one of the twelve Boeing 314 Clippers, made its first transatlantic flight on June 28, 1939. Over 5,000 spectators turned out to watch the plane take off from Manhasset Bay on Long Island. There were 22 passengers and 11 crew members on board. Their final destination was Marseille, France by way of “Horta, the Azores, and Lisbon, Portugal.” Tickets for the flight were priced at a staggering $375 for one-way travel or $675 round-trip, which would amount to $6,623 or $11,922 in today’s dollars. With stops along the way to France, flight and layover time was estimated to be around 48 hours.4 According to one newspaper, the passengers made reservations “years ago for this first flight.” There was, however, one booking unaccounted for—reservation number one—made by Will Rogers, the famed actor and cowboy personality. Rogers had died in an airplane crash in Alaska four years earlier with aviator Wiley Post.5 Nonetheless, the Dixie Clipper arrived safely in Marseille two days later, making its maiden European voyage a tremendous success.6

The aircraft was also used to transport American representatives and foreign dignitaries out of harm’s way as Nazi Germany advanced through Western Europe. William C. Bullitt, United States Ambassador to France, watched as the Germans defeated the French on their way to Paris in June 1940. Bullitt felt communications with American officials were now compromised. This prompted him to leave for the states in July to inform the president on the alarming situation in Paris. On his return flight aboard the Dixie Clipper he was joined by the former Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary Zita, along with her daughter Princess Elizabeth, who had fled Belgium for Portugal. Zita’s sons, Archduke Otto and Prince Felix, were already in New York awaiting the arrival of their mother and sister.7

The plane also transported individuals who would prove vital to Roosevelt’s policies and communications. Republican candidate Wendell Willkie, the president’s opponent from the 1940 election, traveled to London in January 1941. Despite their differences, Willkie and the president agreed that the United States needed to support Great Britain and its allies against the Axis Powers. Roosevelt asked Willkie to meet with American and British officials, as well as hand-deliver a letter to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Upon his return, Willkie met with the president and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House on February 11, 1941. While he was already a supporter of the Lend-Lease Program, the trip convinced Willkie to advocate for Roosevelt’s foreign policy to members of his party and the American people.8

A ca. 1939 photograph of the Yankee Clipper. Of the original six 314 Boeing Clippers made for Pan American World Airways, Yankee was third and Dixie Clipper was fifth. This aircraft would offer transatlantic service and mail transport until it crashed at Lisbon, Portugal on February 22, 1943. Twenty-four of the thirty-nine on board were killed in the accident.

Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

Dixie Clipper’s most famous flight took place in early 1943. President Roosevelt secretly arranged the plane to transport him to Casablanca to meet Prime Minister Churchill to discuss Allied military strategy, supplying the Soviet Union, and opening a second front in Western Europe. On January 9 at 10 PM, Roosevelt and his entourage quietly left the White House for Union Station. They boarded a train for Miami and arrived at 1:30 AM on January 11. At 6 AM the president began his long journey to Morocco, accompanied by advisor Harry Hopkins, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy, the president's doctor Rear Admiral Ross McIntire, naval aide Captain John McCrea, valet Arthur Prettyman, and several Secret Service agents. The Dixie Clipper made pit stops in Trinidad; Belem, Brazil; and Bathurst, Gambia. At Bathurst, the president switched aircraft per the recommendation of Air Transport Command deputy commander and Brigadier General Cyrus R. Smith, who had procured two Douglas C-54 Army transport airplanes for the last leg of the trip to protect the president as he flew over an active war zone. Roosevelt arrived at 6:20 PM on January 14 at Casablanca’s Medouina Airport. His flight time had lasted over 50 hours covering some 7,000 miles. The president took the same route home after the conference, though at a much slower pace. The Navy’s USS Memphis, a Light Cruiser, carried the president back to Bathurst where he boarded the Dixie Clipper for the United States. The perilous trip, however, wasn’t all business. Somewhere in the sky over the Caribbean on January 30, President Roosevelt and his staff celebrated his 61st birthday with cake. He arrived back at the White House the next night.9

The Dixie Clipper was scrapped in 1950, but Roosevelt’s experience flying in a Douglas C-54 over North Africa must have made an impression on the president. General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Commander of the United States Army Air Forces, found it troubling that a civilian aircraft was conveying the president during wartime. He asked the Douglas Skycraft Company to design a military-grade plane that would not only meet the needs of the American president but also accommodate Roosevelt’s disability. As a result, the Douglas VC-54C Skymaster became the first aircraft specifically designated to transport the President of the United States. Nicknamed the Sacred Cow by Admiral Leahy because of its security status and protocol, this plane was manned by a military crew of 7 and carried up to 15 passengers.10 It could reach a maximum speed of 300 miles per hour, an altitude of 22,000 feet, and a distance of some 3,900 miles. The cabin included forward and rear compartments with seating and a bunkbed, but the highlight on the plane’s interior was the Executive Conference Room. This presidential workspace featured a large desk with the presidential seal, a swivel chair for the president, and a private lavatory. It also had a telephone that connected the Chief Executive to the steward, radio operator, pilot, co-pilot, left or right forward compartment, and rear compartment. The president’s enlarged window beside his seat was also made bulletproof for his protection in the sky and on the ground. But the most important addition to the plane was the battery-powered elevator near the rear of the aircraft, which allowed President Roosevelt to board the plane effortlessly.11

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with a map in his hands, travels to the Casablanca Conference in January, 1943 aboard the Dixie Clipper. Beside him is Captain Otis Bryan, who flew the president over Africa.

Library of Congress

In February 1945, President Roosevelt took his only flight aboard the Sacred Cow to the Yalta Conference on the Black Sea. This aircraft was vital in ensuring that the United States would play a major role in the post-war world, but those decisions would ultimately fall to Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman. President Truman used the Sacred Cow extensively during his first term in office, but by 1947, major changes to the federal government and a reorganization of the military would directly impact the presidential plane.

By signing the National Security Act of 1947, Truman approved legislation that made the Air Force an autonomous branch outside the United States Army. He performed this executive duty in the Executive Conference Room of the Sacred Cow, making it the “official” birthplace of the Air Force.12 At the same time, the president was already considering plans for a new presidential plane, a Douglas VC-118. Upon the recommendation of his pilot, Truman later named it Independence after his much beloved Missouri hometown. The Sacred Cow continued to serve as a USAF transport until 1961 when it was retired from service after flying over 12,000 hours and 1,500,000 miles.13 In 1983 it was sent to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. After ten years and over 30,000 hours of labor, Sacred Cow was restored as it appeared for Roosevelt’s trip to Yalta and remains on display today.14