60 Years Ago: First US Presidential Helicopter Takes Off

By S.L. Fuller | July 12, 2017    

Major Barrett departs the White House with President Eisenhower on July 12, 1957 for Camp David. White House Photo.

Major Barrett departs the White House with President Eisenhower on July 12, 1957 for Camp David. White House Photo.

On this day 60 years ago, the first U.S. president took the sky, en route to Camp David, according to Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum. President Dwight D. Eisenhower flew in a Bell Helicopter Ranger July 12, 1957.

“Though helicopters had been in operational use by the American military since 1944, concerns over their safety caused the Secret Service to bar their use for the nation’s chief executive except in case of emergency.  However, by 1956, the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union had reached the point where any evacuation of the president by roads could not be guaranteed and the head of President Eisenhower’s flight section, Air Force Col. William Draper, began shopping for helicopters.”

Eisenhower’s next flight came the following September. Instead of the Bell UH-13J, he rode in a U.S. Marine Corps Sikorsky HUS-1. Eisenhower preferred the Sikorsky. To not show favoritism between the Air Force, who did not operate the HUS-1, and the Marine Corps, Eisenhower alternated flights between the two services’ special flight detachments.

Six decades later, the U.S. presidential helicopter is due for a replacement. Sikorsky’s VH-92, which is scheduled to take its maiden flight within the next few months, should be fully operational come 2020.



During one civil defense drill, President Dwight D. Eisenhower rode in his personal limousine while cabinet members flew in a helicopter and arrived at the bunker far sooner than the president. This sobering outcome sparked the search for a suitable helicopter to whisk the Chief Executive to safety. Early in 1957, it was decided that the Bell H-13J Ranger was ideal for the chief executive's needs and the United States Air Force purchased two. Air Force Maj. Joseph E. Barrett was chosen as Eisenhower's personal helicopter pilot. He was selected because of his extensive record as a combat pilot. Barrett flew Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses in World War II, and he was awarded the Silver Star during the Korean War for a helicopter rescue flight he undertook 70 miles behind enemy lines.

On July 12, 1957, Eisenhower had become the first U.S. President to fly on board a helicopter. Major Joe Barrett was the pilot. Captain Lawrence Cummings flew the second accompanying helicopter with the President's personal physician, and a Secret Service Agent.

In September 1957, Eisenhower made an unscheduled return trip from Newport, Rhode Island, and he flew aboard a Marine Sikorsky UH-34D Seahorse helicopter for part of this journey. The passenger cabin inside the Seahorse was more than three times the size of the Bell Ranger compartment and the President immediately recognized the advantages of flying in this much larger helicopter. The Army and the Marine Corps formed detachments to operate the UH-34 helicopters for presidential transport, but relegated the H-13J's to carrying other VIPs.

The Air Force presidential helicopter mission ended with the Eisenhower presidency. In 1961, the Air Force relocated the H-13J's to the 1001st Helicopter Squadron at Bolling Air Force Base. This unit provided VIP transport to cabinet members, defense department officials, and occasionally the Vice President. The Air Force retired both of the former Presidential transport UH-13J's in 1967 when they were replaced by two UH-1F's. The H-13J's were presented one to the Smithsonian Institution and one to the Air Force Museum at Dayton, Ohio.