Until then, the call sign was so obscure that it led to another confusing incident recounted in Robert Dorr’s book “Air Force One.” An Air Force captain serving a B-52 bombardment wing in 1960 was surprised when two of his unit’s high-priority aircraft were ordered to alter their routes, altitude or timing over the Atlantic Ocean to make way for Air Force One.
Neither he nor anyone else in his outfit had heard the term, and he told his captain as much. “He retorted with, ‘My God, man -- that’s the PRESIDENT!’" The B-52s responded accordingly.
Columbine II at its new home in Bridgewater Air Park, Va
The story of how Columbine II came to be known as Air Force One, even if only behind the scenes, is one of many that Stoltzfus plans to tell after turning the plane into a flying museum.
His journey to ownership began about two years ago when he read a Warbirds International story by “Connie Survivors” historian Ralph Pettersen about the plane languishing in the Arizona desert. “They were talking about it being scrapped for aluminum, and I thought, ‘That’s just not right,” Stoltzfus said. He consulted his “junior business partner,” 9-year-old grandson Gabriel, and decided to try to save Columbine II.
Karl Stoltzfus, the new owner of Columbine II, sits in the pilot's seat
An initial inspection by Stoltzfus’ twin brother, Ken, confirmed that the plane was a good prospect for restoration. Stoltzfus then sent a team to Arizona to work on the plane as part of a pre-purchase process. The deal closed about a year ago, and the restoration work began in earnest. It included the removal and replacement of rubber hoses, the sealing of hydraulic leaks and a huge amount of engine work.
The plane had been exposed to harsh desert conditions in the same spot since 2003 and had only been flown for a half-hour since 1992. “You’re looking at an airplane that had gone about 47 years since it had serious maintenance,” Stoltzfus said.
But his team made it airworthy again. The plane flew from Arizona to Texas on March 21 and to its new home in Virginia two days later, with Stoltzfus on board a King Air 200 that trailed it.
Stoltzfus’ team worked with the FAA to get Columbine II back into flying shape. Aaron Lorson, the executive vice president of Dynamic Aviation, praised the agency’s professionalism and helpfulness. He said Mark Pritchett, an aviation safety inspector in the Scottsdale Flight Standards District Office, “went above and beyond to help us get the paperwork in order.”
Columbine II Engine test.
“He basically helped us work through our issue in a matter of days,” Lorson said. “And he finished it on a Saturday for us so that we could test fly it.”
Pritchett was equally impressed with the meticulous work the restoration team did. “They really had a professional plan and enough resources to do it correctly, and they didn’t cut any corners to get it safely flying,” he said.
Now that Columbine II is home, Stoltzfus is focused on making it look and feel like it did during Eisenhower’s day. His researchers have found drawings and blueprints of the plane that show the interior colors and fabrics in detail. He plans to have a website replete with photos of the plane and stories about it.
Columbine II starts its engines.
Visitors already are flocking to Bridgewater Air Park, where Columbine II will be visible until a hangar for it is complete. “There’s so much interest in the airplane that while we’re working on it, we’re going to have to have it viewable,” Stoltzfus said. His optimistic goal is to have the flying museum ready for tours in two years.
Students are one of Stoltzfus’ target audiences. He sees Columbine II as an opportunity to teach them about the 1950s. He wants them not only to see where Eisenhower sat as he wrote his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech but to appreciate why it mattered.
“I don’t want it to be the kind of airplane that just goes to an airshow for the weekend,” he said. “We want to try to tie in with some educational high school facilities perhaps, and tour, and have storyboards, and have the kids get in it and let them live history.”