Mary Eisenhower shares her memories as a child aboard America's first Air Force One. Photo by JD Fitzgerald
“If this plane could speak, imagine the stories it could tell,” Mary Eisenhower said at the Columbine II: America’s first Air Force One reception on March 18 at the Marana Regional Airport.
Granddaughter to 34th President Dwight Eisenhower, Mary spoke to a rapt audience of elected officials and media as she stood in front of the Lockheed VC-121A-LO Constellation. Originally named for her grandmother’s state flower, the Columbine II made history for holding the first ever Air Force One designation. 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.
“I remember flying on this plane when I was only four or five,” Mary said to the audience, “I used to sit up front and talk to the pilots.”
Marana Police Department honor guard and Marana High School men's chorus open up the ceremony on March 18, 2016. Photo by JD Fitzgerald.
Town of Marana and Dynamic Aviation, the company that owns and is currently restoring the Columbine II, worked together to put on a celebration ceremony in honor of the plane's eventual departure for Virginia, where Dynamic Aviation is based. After years of baking in the desert, the Town wanted to send the plane off in Marana style.
"Back in the day, this plane was a celebrity," Town Manager Gilbert Davidson said as he opened up the ceremony. "Now, it's been given new life."
Mary walked through the plane's interior prior to the ceremony, and reminisced fondly with Karl Stoltzfus Sr., Chairman of Dynamic Aviation, who is also her friend. Karl pointed proudly at a console on the side of the plane.
“Those are the very same buttons your grandpa used to press,” he said, to her delight.
Mary Eisenhower reminisces inside the Columbine II. Photo by JD Fitzgerald.
Those buttons make up a large portion of what little is left behind of the Columbine II’s vintage interior. Upon reaching its Virginia destination, the Columbine II will undergo a dramatic restoration to replace what is now missing.
The Columbine II has endured a rollercoaster of events since its origin as America’s very first Air Force One for President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. As aircraft technology rapidly progressed, Columbine II became obsolete, and spent the next several decades resting in the hot Arizona sun before being purchased by Mel Christler in 1970. Even after he discovered the patriotic history of the plane, the Columbine II had been reduced to a shell of its former self, and sat dormant in the Marana Regional Airport for over a decade.
In 2014, Town of Marana highlighted the Columbine II in a Town-produced community newsletter. What began as a local story quickly blew up into a global sensation, as media from around the world caught wind of Marana’s hidden treasure. It wasn’t long before Karl Stoltzfus Sr. saw the story, and purchased the Columbine II in hopes of restoring it.
Now, in 2016, that dream is coming true.
Spectators watch as Columbine II prepares for take-off. Photo by JD Fitzgerald.
After months of work by Dynamic Aviation to restore its engines, the plane was deemed ready for flight after extensive tests were conducted on March 19.
It was a bittersweet moment when the Columbine II took off for the last time from Marana Regional Airport on March 21 toward its new Virginia home. As a consistent staple in the Marana community, it was with both pride and sadness that spectators watched as the Lockheed Constellation rose steadily into the air before slowly vanishing in the eastern horizon.
The Columbine II may no longer call Marana home, but this is a send-off that the Marana community couldn't be more proud of.
The Columbine II takes off from Marana Regional Airport for the last time on March 21.
Left: Mary Eisenhower, granddaughter to President Dwight Eisenhower standing inside the Columbine II. Right: Karl Stoltzfus Sr., Chairman of Dynamic Aviation, sitting in the cockpit.
The Dynamic Aviation crew worked for months to restore the Columbine II to flying conditions.