JFK's Air Force One Pilot Flew JFK To Dallas -- JFK And LBJ
James Barney Swindal
passed away recently, another of the World War II Generation,
another retired Colonel whose stories of flying the Hump and
the Berlin Airlift were once the everyday recollections of
hundreds, thousands, of Air Force transport pilots. But being a
standout even in that august company, he was selected for a special
mission. That mission led to his most famous flight -- with a
casket for cargo and a grim and shocked load of passengers.
You see, Col. James B. Swindal was the aircraft commander for
Air Force One when it had to carry the body of murdered President
John F. Kennedy from Dallas to Washington on November 22, 1963.
Just before takeoff, in a scene that would reach millions through
the pages of LIFE Magazine, the oath of office was administered to
Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson by US District Judge Sarah Hughes
aboard the plane, with Johnson's wife Lady Bird, and Kennedy's
shocked widow Jacqueline standing by.
When Swindal slipped away on April 25th at Cape Canaveral
Hospital in Cocoa Beach, FL, from complications from a broken hip,
he was 88 years old and one of the last links to that unhappy
flight. Jackie Kennedy, LBJ, Judge Hughes all preceded the pilot in
death. His Co- Pilot, Lew Hanson, passed away in January. Kennedy's
killer and Kennedy's killer's killer are long underground; even
LIFE Magazine is vanished into ancient history. Perhaps it is
fitting that the last of the figures remaining from those bleak
days was a pilot, a man who simply did his duty as best he
The impact of the Kennedy assassination roiled the nation like
very few events (Pearl Harbor, the Challenger explosion, 9/11) have
done. Anyone who was alive then can tell you where he was at
the moment he heard. Afterward, the nation descended into a black
night of investigations, accusations, recriminations and conspiracy
But at the time Swindal knew nothing of what was to come, and
nothing of what the Kennedy assassination might signify. The idea
that a lone crank could have, would have gunned down the photogenic
young leader was not on anyone's mind; it seemed that such a
terrible crime must have a great significance, and must be backed
by a great power or some insidious plan.
There were several orders to start engines, then to stop
Finally the go call was made. Air Force One was given a
clearance unique, perhaps, in history. "Air Force One take
Northwest O-One left, cleared to Andrews Air Force Base by any
route, any altitude."
So when Swindal and crew -- co-pilot Lt. Col. Lew Hanson, and
flight engineer CMS Joe Chappelle, launched USAF VC-137C 62-6000
(26000 for short) that afternoon, they were prepared for trouble.
They carried much more fuel than they needed, in case they arrived
at a Washington under attack; they climbed high to be safe. Attack
by whom? Safe from what? Well, who could say? But at 41,000 feet
over the American interior, in the shelter of a Boeing jet and the
hands of a hand- picked crew, the Presidents old and new were safe
as could be from whatever it might be.
The crew had done something else to prepare the airplane for
JFK's last flight. "[T]here was no place on Air Force One for a
casket, and we sure didn't want to put it in the cargo hold,"
Swindal recalled for Florida Today in 2003. "But back there in the
rear were seats for stewardesses, Secret Service and other
passengers. So we unbolted those seats -- about four rows, I'm
guessing, at least eight seats -- and made a space about the size
of a couch. And there was enough room for people to walk
They also had to cut a rear bulkhead, the plane's engineer,
Chief Master Sergeant Joe Chappelle, remembered in March, 1998. "We
knew we would be bringing the president’s body back on 26000,
but we didn’t want to put his casket in the cargo hold. He
was the president. But it wouldn’t make the turn through the
door of the aircraft. We had to remove a bulkhead near the rear so
we could turn it. We also removed two rows of seats. That made an
area for the casket to rest. I'll never forget Vice President
Lyndon B. Johnson helping us load the casket. It was just a few
minutes later he was sworn in as president onboard the
When the Presidential bier was loaded aboard the jet, Col.
Swindal left his preflight preparations to render his President --
his boss -- one last (or was it?) salute.
Swindal has been a VIP pilot at Andrews AFB for a long time when
he was selected, after the 1960 elections, to fly the new
President- Elect. Kennedy was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1961, and
Swindal remained as his pilot. Swindal's qualifications included
11.500 hours, plus the aforementioned experience flying the great
airlifts of the mid-20th Century, the Hump (Himalayas) airlift in
the China-Burma-India theater, and the Berlin Airlift in the late
forties. You might say his career had been shaped by the same
events that shaped Kennedy's.
(The president was a PT boat skipper in the war, and always was
interested in Berlin as a nexus of the Cold War it fell to him to
At first, their mount was a VC-118, a Douglas DC-6 in military
VIP trim, but the Air Force had already experimented with Boeing
707s as VIP aircraft. (One of those early 707s, a VC-137B that flew
as SAM 970 when not hauling the President, is in Seattle's Museum
of Flight today. It was actually the first jet to carry a
But a new era, the Space Age, deserved a new airplane, and in
1962 the Air Force One of the Kennedy and Johnson years was
Coded SAM (Special Air Mission) 26000 from its Air Force serial
number, the plane was only called Air Force One when the President
was aboard, but it was reserved for Presidential use, unlike the
other planes in the Andrews AFB VIP fleet.
With a paint job created by industrial designer Raymond Loewy
and fine-tuned by the aesthetically attuned First Lady, the plane
became not just a time management and travel tool, but a flying
advertisement for the United States. And James B. Swindal was at
home in its left seat. He even told a Chicago Tribune reporter,
five years ago, that he turned down chances to go back and enjoy
lunch as a guest of the President and First Lady.
"The Kennedys invited me to join them for lunch a couple of
times, but I couldn't ever do it. You fellows in the media would've
had a field day if I were back there eating steak in the
president's dining room and a near-miss occurred."
Kennedy would make sociable visits to the cockpit, but never
stay long; a wartime injury left him in constant back pain, and a
707 cockpit doesn't offer room to stand up.
Together, Kennedy, Swindal and SAM 26000 made a number of
historic flights. They flew to Berlin in June 1963, where Kennedy
roused the spirits of the those in the suddenly walled-off city by
declaring, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Language students who smirked at
his Hahvahd accent and clunky grammar missed the point, but the
people of free Berlin didn't. (Decades later, sister plane 27000
would carry another President to Berlin for another vital Cold War
At Kennedy's funeral at
Arlington Cemetery, SAM 26000 conducted an overflight at 1000 feet
and dipped its wings in salute. By press time we were unable to
determine if Swindal was in the pilot's seat for that mission --
but it sure sounds like something he'd have wanted to do (We know
that the other pilot from the Dallas mission, then Lt. Col. Lew
Hanson, was on the salute flight).
Afterwards, he flew LBJ several times, but LBJ preferred another
pilot, James Cross, and LBJ had a very different style than the
Kennedys had done. Swindal moved on to other duties, and retired in
1971 from a job flying a desk in support of Cape Canaveral, to
nearby Cape Coral.
Swindal was born into a carpenter's family on August 18, 1917,
in West Blocton, Alabama, a tiny village southwest of Birmingham
and almost exactly centered in Alabama. He worked in a factory in
Birmingham's signature iron industry until Pearl Harbor brought the
war to America, and Swindal to the Army Air Corps and adventures in
the thin air over the Himalayas and the tense corridors to
Many military pilots fly for fun after retirement; Swindal
Indeed, he didn't even travel by plane, and only flew as a
passenger once after retiring, to go to his brother's funeral in
California. He didn't care for not being in charge, family members
said. He is survived by his wife, the former Emily Glover; two
children; two grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
We said that Swindal was the last significant survivor of that
flight, and that's not entirely true. The airplane survives today,
and can be seen at the National Museum of the United States Air
Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH. SAM 26000 is the crown
jewel of a hangar dedicated to Presidential aircraft at the Museum.
If you ride the shuttle to the Presidential hangar, you can still
see where Swindal's crewmen cut the back bulkhead of 26000.