IKE'S BIRD History
President Eisenhower with his Air Force One pilot, Col. William Draper.
The story of Ike's Bird appeared in Flying Magazine in 1955.
President Eisenhower exiting the L-26 with British Gen. Bernard Montgomery.
The History of L-26B Commanders in Service to the Eisenhower White House
The factory drawing for Aero Commander serial number 55-4638 is titled “Ike’s Bird”. Built in 1955, the plane and several others were ordered by the government for a special purpose… to carry the President, Vice President and other government officials on short trips. The plane has the distinction of being the smallest aircraft ever to carry the “Air Force One” call sign.
The story goes that President Eisenhower took office and refused to use the “Independence”, Harry Truman’s airplane, as his Air Force One. Instead he ordered a Lockheed Constellation as his primary aircraft. But for short trips into and out of his farm grass strip near Gettysburg, PA, the President needed something to operate from the short and unimproved landing area. Helicopters were not yet reliable enough. Driving took too long and snarled traffic. He told his chief pilot, Col. William Draper, to conduct an evaluation. His mission was to find a plane to go back and forth to the farm, and to make other short trips. The Colonel chose one of the most popular executive transports of the day, the Aero Commander 560A, and the Air Force ordered several for the President’s use. The Air Force designated the planes the L-26. Himself a pilot, Ike often took the controls of the Aero Commander, enjoying the opportunity to fly.
A fleet of six Commander L-26's were assigned to the White House and used exclusively by President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, Cabinet and government officials, Secret Service, family and White House staff. This aircraft, 55-4638, was one of those original six. Two more were added a year later with turbocharged engines and assigned exclusively for Presidential use. This plane was used daily in the famous Gettysburg Airlift in 1955 and 1956, as well as the Greenbriar Airlift that hauled Ike along with the President of Mexico to North Carolina. Another seven L-26 aircraft were based in the Washington DC area and assigned to military units.
"Ike's Bird" 55-4638 was declared surplus and sold out of Air Force inventory in 1960. It was used in a variety of training and freight hauling capacities. Eventually it fell into disrepair.
The aircraft was purchased by a private individual in 1997 at auction. Scott Main of Fort Lauderdale, FL spent many years restoring the plane back to pristine condition as an original L-26B White House aircraft. In 2019 the aircraft was acquired by the Commemorative Air Force. The CAF will display the plane at airshows, tour stops and special events around the US. The general public will be given the opportunity to purchase a ride on an authentic Air Force One. The CAF will use these proceeds, along with donations to the Victory Flight for Veterans program to fly veterans for free as a way to honor their service to our nation.
"Ike's Bird" is the only remaining flyable Commander L-26 from among those purchased by Col. Draper and the Air Force. A few exist in museums, including one at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH.