Presidential Transport Lockheed Constellation Columbine II (Image Credit: Town of Marana)

Presidential Transport Lockheed Constellation Columbine II
(Image Credit: Town of Marana)

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.

Fateful designation number of 8610 led to all presidential aircraft being assigned the " -One" call sign.

Fateful designation number of 8610 led to all presidential aircraft being assigned the ” -One” call sign.

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.

Restored Lockheed Constellation Columbine III at the Presidential Gallery of the Museum of the US Air Force. (Image Credit: Museum of USAF)

Restored Lockheed Constellation Columbine III at the Presidential Gallery of the Museum of the US Air Force.
(Image Credit: Museum of USAF)

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.

Columbime II in better days

Columbime II in better days

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.

Awaiting a new owner.. (Image Credit: Town of Marana)

Awaiting a new owner..
(Image Credit: Town of Marana)

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!

6 Comments

  1. Orden Hartley says:

    It would be so cool to be able to afford this plane or another old plane like her. I have read where after WWII the surplus planes went dirt cheep. Oh well a fella can dream.

  2. Brandi Christler says:

    My husband is part owner of this plane and it was his father who purchased this plane at an auction for his spraying operation. My husband is the one who test flew it for the first time after they restored it. If you would like to contact us regarding Eisenhower’s Columbine II, please email at: bchristler@hotmail.com

    • Gary Gillum says:

      Brandi, on a whim I was wondering what had happened to Columbine II. Turns out it is nearby in Marana! (I live in Catalina, north of Oro Valley.) I wish I had the wherewithal to buy that lovely plane, but since I don’t I will at least share with you my little love story with Columbine II — straight from my journal! Enjoy!

      Good luck in selling this grand ole’ plane.

      Flying in Columbine II, May 30, 1967

      May 28. Our TWA flight finally landed at Torrejon Air Base, a beautiful base 40 miles from Madrid. One problem – not many planes come in here and leave. Some of the space available students are going to wait until a flight leaves, others are flying to Frankfurt commercially for $97, and still others – like myself– are going to take the train to Paris or Zurich and then home to Wiesbaden.

      Mary 29. Good news! One of the girls wanting to go to Frankfurt called her father, a pilot. Since he needs some more hours of flying time each month he is going to fly down here tomorrow morning in a small transport plane and fly all of us students to Wiesbaden AB –my dad’s base. All I have to do is call my dad at work when I get in.
      Our flight to Wiesbaden was confirmed at 8:15 p.m. tonight.

      May 30. Along with twenty other students, we waited in the lobby for the bus to take us to the terminal. Upon arrival at the terminal at 10 we learned that our plane would arrive from Wiesbaden at 12:09 and leave at 1:30. Meanwhile, I wrote a letter and played hearts with two other students. After eating lunch we talked and waited for our plane to leave. It turned out to be a courier executive plane [President Eisenhower’s old Columbine II presidential plane, a VC-121 Constellation] with pullman beds, sofas, and card tables between sets of four seats. Four of us played hearts and gin with two other students across the table from us, and then I taught her how to play battleship. Finally the 3½ flight ended, and we landed at Wiesbaden at 4:45.

  3. Brandi Christler says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Gary. It’s very rare to find someone who has flown in this plane. I enjoyed reading about the details of the plane’s interior. The plane is in storage and we’re still trying to find a good home for her.
    Thank you again for sharing your wonderful story!
    -Brandi Christler

    • Michael Henderson says:

      Hi Brandi: I got this email today from 3 separate friends, odd that I never heard this story and now get it sent to me three times. Anyway it’s making the rounds of cyber world. Thought you might find it of interest. Best Michael Henderson CDR Retired, Tampa FL (6-17-14)

      ” In the Fall of 1957, Pres. and Mrs. Eisenhower landed in Air Force One, Columbine, at Spence Air. Base, Moultrie, Georgia, where Pres. Eisenhower was coming to stay at a Georgia Senator’s plantation for a pheasant hunting vacation.
      I was stationed at Spence in Primary flying school and have home movies of this event.
      I am hopeful that this piece of history can be restored.”

      Amazing what we don’t know and sell or discard!

      THE FIRST AIR FORCE ONE
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehwvZXVKmPU

  4. The plane is not in bad shape. I saw it up close when I worked at Avra valley a few years back. The old Central Air service C- 54′s are there also. These were the first planes I worked when I got into aviation in 1975 for the legendary Bill Dempsey. A great Pilot and the best mechanic I ever saw. I built the slurry tanks from scratch. Bill taught me how the work on the round engines and we spent a couple of summers on the fire bombing circuit keeping the old girls flying. The 54′s also appear in good shape. These are real cold war birds that did the berlin airlift. I hope they will all be saved.

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