In a few short months, Marana will bid farewell to a piece of history that has lived in our backyard for many years. Columbine II, America’s first Air Force One, will soon depart for Virginia, where it will undergo an extensive renovation to return it to its former glory. To celebrate its past, Marana will host a farewell reception for media and elected officials at the Marana Regional Airport on March 18.
A new chapter is about to begin in this plane’s incredible life, continuing a story that began many years ago and many miles away. This exclusive event will feature special guests and community leaders who appreciate the importance of this story.
The History of the Original Air Force One
President Dwight Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower exit Air Force One in 1953.
In the December sky over New York City, an air traffic control mix-up nearly changed the course of US history. The year was 1953, and two planes carefully descended into the Big Apple. One pilot radioed his flight number, Air Force 8610, to ground control. At the same time, another pilot, at the helm of Eastern Airlines 8610, prepared a similar flight path. Hindsight would later reveal that for a brief moment, air traffic controllers had conflated the two planes. Both pilots aimed for the same runway, at the same time. One of them carried the President of the United States.
President Dwight Eisenhower did not find himself in a mid-air collision in December 1953. Instead, he went on to create an Interstate Highway System, to end segregation in the Armed Forces, and to institute a fledgling American space program. Instead of resulting in tragedy, this moment gave rise to the most recognizable airplane moniker in history: Air Force One.
When President Eisenhower traveled the nation’s skies, he did so in the premier aircraft of the day, a Lockheed Constellation named Columbine II. After December’s close call, no flight controller would ever again refer to the President’s plane as Columbine II, or Constellation, or Air Force Flight 8610. The first Air Force One would go on to transport not only a President, but also Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon, and John Foster Dulles.
Today, though, that history is but a distant memory. As aircraft technology rapidly progressed, “Columbine II” became obsolete. Eventually, the Air Force relegated it to a boneyard of planes at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, deep in the Sonoran Desert. Abandoned and forgotten, the plane slowly baked under the hot Arizona sun.
An Unexpected Discovery
In 1970, Mel Christler unwittingly purchased Columbine II through an Air Force auction, along with four other decrepit planes. He planned to use this patchwork fleet as crop-dusters over agricultural fields. The worst of the lot, “Columbine II”, would be mined for parts.
A decade later, after Christler had stripped the plane to a shell of its former self, he got a call from a Robert Mikesh, Curator of the Smithsonian Institute. Buried deep in the museum’s archives, far from the public eye, Mikesh had uncovered a startling link between the husk of a plane falling apart in Arizona and a crucial player in American aviation history. With incredulity, Christler listened as Mikesh described his plane’s stunning past.
After learning of this remarkable discovery, Christler sought in vain to restore the original Air Force One to its former glory. By 1990, he had refurbished the plane to flying condition, and flew it to Abilene, Kansas, Eisenhower’s hometown, to join the centennial celebration of this community’s favorite son. Thereafter, the plane assumed the life of a nomad, moving from home to home across the Southwest, until it reached the Marana Regional Airport, where it has resided since 2005. Many thought this would be the final resting place of this storied relic.
A Chance At New Life
Karl Stoltzfus, Sr., though, had other plans. In 1967, Stoltzfus founded K&K Aircraft, Inc., an operator of custom planes to provide services for a variety of aviation customers. Soon, his company evolved into Dynamic Aviation, which today performs a number of aviation functions, from airborne data acquisition to charter and medevac solutions. A US history buff, Stoltzfus was intrigued when he heard the story of Columbine II, but was perplexed to learn that if it deteriorated much more, it would soon disappear into the desert sand. He quickly set out to change that narrative, and in 2015, Dynamic Aviation purchased Columbine II.
For months, now, Dynamic Aviation’s mechanic team has worked relentlessly at Marana Regional Airport to return Columbine II to the skies. Planes are meant to fly, Stoltzfus believes, and the original Air Force One should be no exception. His grandiose plans, however, don’t stop there. In its heyday, Columbine II carried the most powerful leaders in the world, but a look at its dilapidated interior today would suggest otherwise. Soon, Columbine II will fly from Marana to Bridgewater, Virginia, where it will undergo an extensive renovation. Its gleaming vintage fixtures will shine again. Its proud past will come to life.