Flying White House

Censorship at last lifted, the public is introduced to President's private plane

It may look like any other Douglas C-54 Skymaster, but since June, 1944 it has flown into or over 44 different countries and has broken six world records. Flags of these countries are painted on the fuselage just below the pilot's window, testifying to its missions. Once seen, the ship is quickly identified as the President's personal plane. As the Chief Executive is often too busy to make many flights, other high-ranking officials are privileged to use the "Flying White House" for the purpose of expediting government business.

The "Flying White House" is a standard C-54 taken from the line at the Santa Monica plant of the Douglas Aircraft Company, but modified to fit the uses to which it would be put. The exterior remained unchanged, but the interior was redesigned and specially furnished for the late President Roosevelt.

The pilot and boss of the plane that carries some of the most important people in the world is a capable veteran of the sky, Lt Col Henry T Myers. At home anywhere in the world today, Colonel Myers won his Army wings at Kelly Field in 1931, stayed in the service for a few years, and then went to work for American Airlines. He had logged over 10,000 flying hours when he was called back into the Army in May, 1942 to become aide and personal pilot to Lt General Harold L George, head of the Air Transport Command.

Shortly after, Colonel Myers was assigned to the "Flying White House" and went with his crew to Santa Monica to supervise the modification of the ship.

The Skymaster's first mission outside of the country was to fly Secretary of War Stimson to Europe shortly after the Normandy invasion. Because the Secretary was in a hurry, the distance between Washington and Naples — 4200 miles — was covered in 24 hours. From Naples the ship went to London, then proceeded nonstop to Washington, flying the 3800 miles in 17 hours and 50 minutes.

President Roosevelt's inspection of the Pacific and Alaska followed, and the "Flying White House" was assigned to transport some of the Presidential party. The Honolulu-to-Kodiak leg had never been flown before, but Colonel Myers flew the 2700 miles nonstop in 12 hours.

Another record was set soon afterward when the "Flying White House" was dispatched to Rio de Janeiro to bring Madame Chiang Kai-shek back to Washington. The 5300-mile trip, reports Colonel Myers, was made with only two stops and in 22 hours, 55 minutes — the only time a plane had flown more than 5000 miles in one day.

During the Quebec conference Colonel Myers and his ship literally ran a shuttle service between Washington and Quebec for high government dignitaries. After the conference, the "Flying White House" took General Marshall and War Mobilization Director Byrnes to Paris; their return trip marked the first night takeoff from Paris since the war began. General Marshall had requested a night departure so that he might return to Washington to do some work at his oilice the following afternoon. Colonel Myers cooperated, and the General arrived in time to accomplish a few hours' work before going home for the day.

Another Paris-bound group was waiting for Colonel Myers in Washington — the Joint Committee for the Reorganization of the Army and Navy, comprising three admirals and three generals, headed by Admiral Richardson and General George. The committee, after finishing its work in Paris, was flown back to Washington, and from there took off for a tour of the Pacific war zone. Flights averaged ten hours a day, totaled 25,000 miles between Honolulu and Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, Leyte and back.

The "Flying White House" landed at Leyte when only one airstrip was available to the Allies, at Tacloban, and it was, naturally enough, considerably overworked. The landing was anything but routine, according to Colonel Myers:

"I landed and called the the tower and the tower told me if I didn't get that airplane off the field in 15 minutes they would shove it into the ocean.

"The operations officer told me: 'The field will only hold 200 airplanes and we have 230 on it now and 15 more coming in.' I said, 'OK Give me some gas and I'll take off — I don"t like it here anyway.

"I gassed and pulled up at the end of the runway for a takeoff. Just then they had a red alert and the pursuits started to scramble. A bunch of P-38s started taking off from one end of the field. At the same time a bunch of Troop Carrier C-47s were coming in for landings at the other end. The P-38s were slamming down from one end of the runway and the C-47s were landing on the other. The pursuits would head right for the transports and then zoom over them, missing them by inches. It was a hectic few minutes.

"I could not get off the runway. The pursuits would take off right over us and the transports came heading for us from the other direction. I could not decide whether to tell my passengers to jump and run for safety or to stay in the airplane. I finally spotted a place to park and ran the airplane off the runway. They told me to get it out of there or they would push it into the ocean. I tried to explain to them that we had a lot of generals and admirals on board to see General MacArthur but they said they didn't give a damn, they were fighting a war.

"I finally got things straightened out — after the alert was over, and we found a place to park the plane for a day and a half until the conference was finished. Then we headed back."

Two days before the Yalta conference Colonel Myers took off on a dry run, to lay out the course — a new direct route across the southern tip of Greece, over the Aegean and Bosporus, to see if the C-54 would prove a target for enemy fire, and to ascertain whether the landing field at Saki, near Yalta, could accommodate the big ship.

Back in Washington, the "Flying White House" was joined by the Skymaster which had been delivered to Churchill in 1944 and in which he had just flown to Moscow for his conference with Stalin. The two pilots agreed on their course and speed and took off for Yalta within a few minutes of each other. While the leaders met, Colonel Myers made another dry run, to Cairo and back, in preparation for the President's next stop.

"The airplane," comments Colonel Myers, "has performed perfectly on all its missions." Although the ship has never set out to break records, records have been broken and set because of the urgency to cover great distances in a short time, at the request of its passengers. Another record was set when the "Flying White House" took President Truman from Washington, DC to Tacoma, Washington on June 19 of this year; it was the first time a President of the United States, while in office, took off from one point in the United States to fly to another destination inside the country.

The weather has always favored oceanic flights of the "Flying White House." In fact, on one trip to the Aleutians, the weather cleared the day the ship and its Senate passengers arrived. The weather that prevailed throughout their stay is still known in Alaska as "senatorial weather."

Colonel Myers' unique job has one upsetting aspect. The camera which he takes along on trips has 36 exposures. By the time he has shot the roll, he is likely to have a pictorial album representing all parts of the world. But the colonel's memory is often strained in his effort to identify the scenes he has recorded.

Seldom does the "Flying White House" meet its match in scope of missions. But one of Colonel Myers' favorite stories concerns a sister C-54. On his way back to the United States on an eastward round-the-world flight, the colonel landed on the Air Transport Command field in Fiji, looked around and saw a familiar ship.

"It was Fred Kelly's No 2," says Colonel Myers, "flying General Somervell. He was headed down to the Southwest Pacific and around the world in the opposite direction to which I was flying.

"I flew on in to Washington and then hopped off for Cairo. Landing at the field I saw that C-54 again. Sure enough, it was Fred Kelly — he had come into Cairo the other way still on the 'rounder.' We parted company there. He flew on up to England and I went to Russia and Siberia and came back. Just as I landed at Washington, in comes Kelly, not five minutes behind me. We had been around the world in opposite directions and landed five minutes apart."


This article was originally published in the September, 1945, issue of Air News with Air Tech magazine, vol 9, no 3, pp 37, 39.
The original article includes 5 photos.
Photos are credited to Douglas.