News & Politics

From the Archives: After JFK’s Assassination, His Final Flight From Dallas

Aboard Air Force One during one of America’s most searing, perilous moments.

Cecil Stoughton’s photo of LBJ’s swearing-in—among the 20th century’s most famous images—was just one of two dozen he shot aboard Air Force One during the ceremony. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton/National Archives.

This article originally ran in the November 2013 issue of Washingtonian.


And thank God, Mr. President, you came out of Dallas alive.

The joke was prepared, the words typed, ready to place on the Vice President’s lectern in Austin, Texas, later that evening. Lyndon Johnson was planning to close his speech on November 22, 1963, with a punch line about how John F. Kennedy had survived the city of hate.

Fears for Kennedy in Dallas had been widespread. The place was filled with extremists who thought JFK was soft on Communism and the United Nations was a red front. Just a few weeks earlier, Adlai Stevenson had been physically assaulted during a speech there; in 1961, one of Bobby Kennedy’s speeches in Dallas had been interrupted by circling cars full of noisy protesters and in 1960, images of a crowd jostling and jeering Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson as they crossed a Dallas street had horrified the nation.

In the days leading up to the Kennedy visit, homemade posters bearing the President’s face circulated with the headline “Wanted for Treason.” That morning at their hotel suite in Fort Worth, after seeing a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News accusing him of being a Communist lover, JFK said to his wife, Jackie, “We’re heading into nut country today.”

Kennedy’s arrival at Dallas’s Love Field, though, went better than expected. It was an almost silly, Herculean effort to fly Air Force One the 30 miles from Fort Worth, where they’d spent the night before, to Dallas, but the White House wanted the beautiful visual of the throngs embracing the Kennedys.

The flight, from wheels up to wheels down, lasted just 13 minutes, barely long enough for the President to change into his third fresh shirt of the day. Kennedy looked out the window at the huge crowd, turned to George Thomas, his valet since 1947, and joked with the Berryville, Virginia, native: “You know, George, I think this is a bigger town than you come from.”

Jackie walked off the plane first, a violation of protocol that went overlooked amid the roar of thousands of admirers gathered on the tarmac. As he always did, about halfway down the stairs President Kennedy unconsciously stuffed one hand into his jacket pocket, just as Lieutenant Colonel Lewis “Swede” Hanson, the Air Force One copilot, knew he would. “It was a small thing, but we always watched for it, and we always got a kick out of it,” Hanson later recalled.

On the ground under the crisp blue Texas sky, JFK worked the rope line and Jackie received a bouquet of red roses. (At every other Texas stop, she’d been given bouquets of the yellow rose of Texas, but in Dallas for some reason she was given red.) Then Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie, and the President and First Lady climbed into the open-top presidential limousine, flown specially to Dallas for the day. And off they went, basking in the sun’s warmth and the crowd’s cheers.

The blue-and-white Boeing 707 sat waiting to whisk the presidential party to Austin for the final stop on the multiday Kennedy-Johnson Texas tour. Colonel James Swindal, the presidential pilot, had taken on only a small fuel load—carefully tested for contaminants before being used—because it was just another 180 miles to the state capital.

But Air Force One would never depart for Austin, and the Vice President’s joke would never be delivered.

The city of hate had, in fact, killed the President.

At 1 PM Central Standard Time, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, age 46, was pronounced dead at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital from a gunshot wound to the head.

At that moment, Lyndon Baines Johnson, 55, officially became President. The first four hours of his presidency would unfold almost entirely aboard Air Force One, where, just feet away from the body of his predecessor, he began the process of reassuring a nation and building a government. The plane became the unexpected venue for a peaceful transfer of power—that most renowned hallmark of the most powerful democracy on earth.

The 1,190-mile journey from Dallas to Washington on November 22, 1963, stands as the most famous Air Force One flight of all time. Johnson boarded the plane in secrecy, with few in the world aware that Kennedy was dead, and then after taking the presidential oath had 132 minutes to assemble his thoughts and a government before landing at Andrews Air Force Base and presenting himself to the cameras as the new leader of the free world.

While there are many individual recollections of the flight, there exist few comprehensive reconstructions of all that unfolded on the plane. But a review of dozens of memoirs and oral histories plus more than 500 pages of documents—from the White House pool report filed by the two journalists aboard to confidential Secret Service files documenting the activities of each of its agents—as well as a recently discovered two-hour-and-22-minute audio recording of Air Force One’s radio traffic with Andrews on the day of the assassination, reveals that even amid one of the most dramatic presidential transitions in history there arose very human moments of envy, anger, bewilderment, and courage, as those aboard endured what would be for all of them the most difficult hours of their lives.

Part 1. On the Ground

Colonel James Swindal, a handsome World War II veteran from Alabama who had flown in the 1948–49 Berlin Airlift, had been President Kennedy’s personal pilot since the 1960 election. He had just been finishing lunch on Air Force One—a roast-beef sandwich—when panicked voices erupted from the radio.

Amid the garbled transmissions, he heard a shout at 12:30 PM CST: Dagger, cover Volunteer! Then lots of crosstalk. “Dagger” meant Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood. “Volunteer” meant LBJ. Then agent Roy Kellerman reported from the motorcade, “Lancer is hurt. It looks bad.” Then nothing. “Lancer” was the President.

Many long minutes later, a phone call finally came from Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh, the President’s military aide, at Parkland Hospital: Fuel up and file a flight plan for Washington. Swindal still didn’t know what had transpired, but he obeyed the order, rushing for the stairs and shouting to his flight engineer standing on the tarmac below: “Get fuel onboard! Get ready to go!”

Swindal only found out what had actually happened to Kennedy when he turned on the TV in the presidential compartment and heard that he’d been shot. As word spread, Love Field came alive. Military personnel streamed out of the terminal, returning to Air Force One and Air Force Two, the Vice President’s plane, parked nearby. Swindal’s copilot, Colonel Lewis Hanson, who had driven to his mother-in-law’s house close by the airport for a visit, raced back, his car straining at more than 80 miles an hour through the empty streets.

Sergeant John Trimble, one of the Air Force signalmen on the plane, was working his radio, talking to Andrews Air Force Base, when word passed through the plane that President Kennedy was dead. “All the chatter ceased,” Trimble recalled. “We were all numb and did our jobs automatically as we waited for the body to arrive.”

Extra security began to surround the plane. Twenty Dallas police officers formed a perimeter while Secret Service and police began to clear nearby parking lots and buildings. Then came the first sign of what had gone so terribly wrong: Shortly after 1:15, the presidential limousine, now empty, its back seat covered in blood, arrived back at the airfield and headed for the military C-130 transport plane that had carried the motorcade to Dallas. From the limo, Secret Service agent Samuel Kinney—who had helped carry Kennedy into Parkland Hospital before reinstalling the car’s hard top for the drive back to the airport—radioed ahead to the Air Force cargo plane: “Have the ramp down—we’re driving right aboard.”

With Kennedy dead, Johnson’s aides and Secret Service agents pushed the Vice President to return to the plane and then to Washington. Their hastily arranged motorcade rushed back to Love Field. Agent Jerry Kivett crammed into the back of a police car with Texas congressman Jack Brooks and the new President’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

Lyndon Johnson arrived at the airfield at 1:33, traveling in one of two unmarked white police cars, with a motorcycle escort. Air Force One—big, gleaming, and safe—was one of the most welcome sights that the head of LBJ’s Secret Service detail, Rufus Youngblood, had ever seen. “I want us to run up the ramp,” he told Johnson as they pulled to the foot of the plane.

A hundred yards away, an agent who had spent the day standing guard at Love Field didn’t know what to make of the two vehicles that pulled up at the base of the Air Force One stairs. It wasn’t until he spotted a group darting up the ramp and Youngblood closing the door behind him that he realized: The new President is back, safely, ready to govern.

At 1:40, once aboard, Youngblood and Kivett—who had been assigned to the new First Lady—whisked the Vice President into the presidential stateroom. The Secret Service set up checkpoints at the two plane entrances. At Youngblood’s order, an agent and the Air Force stewards passed through the plane, closing each window shade—the plane darkening progressively as they moved through the cabin.

As the Johnsons boarded, the TV in the cabin was on and CBS’s Walter Cronkite was intoning, “Lyndon B. Johnson, now President of the United States.” The phrase struck Lady Bird—she hadn’t yet begun to process how different their life had become with the crack of the assassin’s rifle. Lyndon Johnson had a similar epiphany: As he entered the stateroom, the staffers who were assembled around the TV all stood. Their nervous chatter ceased, and Albert Thomas, another loyal Texas congressman Johnson had asked along for the trip, said, “We are ready to carry out any orders you have, Mr. President.”

“Nothing would ever be the same again,” LBJ said later of that moment. “A wall—high, forbidding, historic—separated us now, a wall that derived from the office of the Presidency of the United States.”

Taking the mantle of the nation’s highest office so instantaneously, so unexpectedly, left even Johnson momentarily discomfited. The stateroom where the group had gathered to watch TV featured couches and a desk as well as a private bathroom. It was the President’s only personal space on his own aircraft, and just hours earlier it had belonged to John F. Kennedy. The Texas newspapers JFK had read during the short trip to Dallas still lay on the floor.

Johnson might have been President, but the President’s room didn’t yet feel like his space. This is in bad taste, he thought. “I want this kept strictly for the use of Mrs. Kennedy,” he said, leading the others outside to the public sitting room.

LBJ was already focused on matters of state: When should he take the oath? Under the Constitution’s rules of succession, he had in fact assumed the presidency at the moment of Kennedy’s death—no oath was technically necessary. But he immediately grasped the enormous symbolic importance to the nation of demonstrating an orderly transfer of power through a traditional swearing-in. Should it be here in Dallas or in Washington? Two of the three Texas congressmen present pushed for Dallas immediately. The continuity of the US government was critical.

“You’ve got to take the oath now, Mr. President,” Representative Thomas argued. “Suppose there was weather trouble and it took three or four hours to get to Washington. The United States can’t wait that long.”

Then there was the matter of the oath itself. No one actually knew how to swear in a new President.

First Johnson called Kennedy’s national-security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, at the White House to discuss the transition. The call served to inform the Air Force One communications crew sitting up front that the new President had boarded the plane—amid the confusion and the need for the highest security, no one had bothered to tell them.

Indeed, the Secret Service agents took no chances: Agent Youngblood never left the new President’s side as Johnson began to order the secretaries and aides to various tasks. It was little wonder: As Lady Bird stood on the plane, herself anxious and overcome, she heard one Secret Service agent mutter in wonder and shame, “We never lost a President in the Service.”

“[It was] the most desolate voice—and I hurt for him,” she later recalled.

Around 1:50, Johnson put a call through to the attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, the President’s brother and closest confidant—a call that delicately juggled matters of state with RFK’s personal turmoil. Johnson reached him at Hickory Hill, his estate in McLean, where he was meeting with CIA director John McCone. Kennedy took the call from the extension next to the pool. It was a surreal setting for a surreal phone call.

Bobby Kennedy, who had just celebrated his 38th birthday, had never liked Johnson—would never like him—and everyone knew it. He had even tried to torpedo the invitation to Johnson to join his brother’s presidential ticket. (“When Bobby hates you, you stay hated,” his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had said once. The feeling was mutual. Johnson had said of Bobby, “He’s a snot-nose, but he’s bright.” Johnson biographer Robert Caro called the mutual antipathy “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.”)

“Where should I take the oath?” Johnson asked the attorney general. “Here or there?”

Bobby Kennedy, composed and serious, first told him what information he could: It didn’t appear there was any larger plot against the government; J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI director, was passing along every detail his agency collected. But RFK demurred momentarily on the question of where to take the oath and said he’d call back.

Johnson’s secretary, Marie Fehmer, entered the stateroom just as Johnson hung up the phone. “Write this down as what has happened,” he told her. “I talked to the attorney general. Asked him what we should do . . . where I should take the oath . . . here or there. Said he would like to look into it . . . and would notify me whether we should take it here or not.”

Johnson wanted posterity to note that he was consulting with the Kennedys. He wasn’t grabbing power; he was being respectful in a time of great sorrow.

Moments later, McGeorge Bundy called, urging Johnson to get to Washington right away, but Johnson said he wasn’t leaving without Kennedy’s body and the widowed First Lady. He couldn’t leave them behind in Dallas; it would look like panic. As they talked, the Air Force One switchboard operator interrupted to tell LBJ that Robert Kennedy was calling back with his verdict: The new President should take the oath before leaving Dallas.

Or at least that was Lyndon Johnson’s version of what Bobby Kennedy said.

The two men had nearly diametrically opposed memories of that second telephone call from the attorney general. Robert Kennedy later insisted that he encouraged Johnson to wait until he arrived in Washington and that he was appalled Johnson wanted to go ahead with the swearing-in before his brother’s body was brought home. The different memories were the germ of all the grievances, complaints, and sniping that would arise from the events on that plane in the years ahead—would be the basis for the claim by some that Johnson had rudely grabbed power, stomping all over the widow and the late President’s body.

There were three people privy to the Dallas end of the call—Marie Fehmer, Rufus Youngblood, and Johnson—and two to the Washington end, Bobby Kennedy and his deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach. Parsing their accounts indicates that the call most likely went something like this: LBJ asked Kennedy if there was any reason he shouldn’t take the oath in Dallas, and Kennedy—confused, grief-stricken, and puzzled by Johnson’s forcefulness—simply didn’t say anything.

“A lot of people down here have advised me to be sworn in right away,” Johnson said. Did Bobby have any objection to that? Johnson took Kennedy’s silence as acquiescence. Bobby Kennedy, though, later explained his reaction: “I was too confused and upset to talk to him about it.” He was thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if my brother came back to Washington still as President Kennedy?

But Johnson, it appears, plowed ahead, asking the attorney general who could legally swear him in, battering him with procedural questions that kept him off balance. And by the time he hung up, severing the link to Washington and to the Kennedy brother, he felt ready to assume the presidency.

Johnson would be sworn in as President in Dallas. It was an oath that had been taken by just 34 men before him, only seven of them Vice Presidents assuming office on the death of an elected President. (The last President to be sworn in outside Washington had been Calvin Coolidge, who, after Warren Harding’s passing, took the oath privately from his father, a Vermont justice of the peace.)

Johnson knew whom he wanted to administer the oath: “Get Sarah Hughes.”

Hughes, a native of Maryland and a graduate of Goucher College, had been one of the only female officers on the DC police force in the 1920s and attended George Washington University Law School, where she met her future husband. They moved to Dallas to practice together, but before long she was elected to the legislature and in 1935 became Texas’s first female state district judge. Kennedy appointed her to the federal bench in 1961, and Johnson personally introduced her to Kennedy when she came back to Washington for her confirmation.

Just an hour earlier, Hughes had been at the Dallas Trade Mart, eating steak and apple pie, waiting for the arrival of the Kennedys and Johnsons. Then the luncheon’s chairman rose from his seat and grimly announced the shooting, adding, “We will be dismissed.” She recalled later how tense, subdued, and angry the 4,000 luncheon guests seemed as they moved for the exits. In the parking lot, a man told her the President was dead. On the drive back to her house, Hughes and two of her staff members had speculated about where and when LBJ would be sworn in.

“We never dreamed I might become involved in it,” she recalled. At home, she called her clerk to tell him she wouldn’t be back that day, and it was then that he passed along an urgent message from the Vice President: Get to the airport.

Johnson had called her office personally, leaving instructions with the clerk to find her quickly. At 2:02 PM, just as the hearse pulled up to the airplane, she called back to say she could be on the plane in a matter of minutes.

Still, neither Hughes nor anyone onboard knew the oath of office. One of Johnson’s secretaries called the Justice Department and asked Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach to track it down. (For his part, Katzenbach had been puzzled by Johnson’s call to Robert Kennedy: Any number of federal officials could have provided the procedural information Johnson sought. He felt he knew LBJ’s real motive, Katzenbach said later: “He may have wanted to be absolutely sure that there wouldn’t be an explosion on Bobby’s end.”)

Meanwhile, just outside the stateroom, the crew—pilot Swindal, copilot Hanson, flight engineer Joe Chappell, and steward Joe Ayres—had been busy tearing apart the rear of the plane. As word arrived that Air Force One would be carrying the President’s body home to Washington, everyone on the crew had had nearly the same thought: President Kennedy cannot go into the baggage compartment.

They could get a casket through the rear door, but a partition would block the turn into the aisle, so the crew had taken a saw to the partition and unbolted four seats to make room. They carried the seats down the stairs and across the tarmac to the older Boeing plane that had been serving as Air Force Two. “We finished up just before the hearse arrived,” Chappell recalled.

The plane was filling fast. Decisions began to tumble over one another as the passengers’ personal priorities began to collide. Shortly after Kennedy’s death, his presidential photographer, Cecil Stoughton, had been in a Parkland Hospital hallway holding open a telephone line for the US Signal Corps when he saw Johnson and his party rush past.

Stoughton had been in the Army since 1957 as a cameraman and in 1959 had taken the only pictures of “Able” and “Baker,” the first monkeys to make it into space, after their capsule was recovered in the Atlantic. Kennedy’s personal photographer since the inauguration, Stoughton realized in a flash that he was watching the new President of the United States pass by and jumped into a car with future Johnson adviser Jack Valenti and Secret Service agent Lem Johns for the ride to Love Field.

On the plane, Stoughton pushed his way through the crowd until he found Swindal and asked if he could hitch a ride to Washington. “They’re going to have a ceremony someplace,” Stoughton told the pilot.

“Sure, you can ride up here with us if you have to,” the colonel promised.

Returning to the main cabin, Stoughton—who at 43 was nearly the same age as the late President—saw a group of women, including White House aides Mary Gallagher and Evelyn Lincoln, crying quietly in their seats with the shades drawn. “The whole cabin was dark and foreboding and sniffling,” he said later. It was also hot and getting hotter: Swindal had had the ground air conditioner disconnected in order to speed Air Force One’s departure, but now, with no takeoff imminent, the plane was just sitting there, baking like an oven in the midday Texas sun.

Kennedy’s assistant press secretary, “Mac” Kilduff, hurried into the cabin, spotting Stoughton with a look of relief. “Thank God you’re here,” Kilduff said. “The President’s going to take his oath. You’re going to have to make the pictures and release it to the press.”

Kilduff was barely holding it together. JFK aide Kenneth O’Donnell had told Kilduff earlier that fall that he should start looking for a new job—the White House didn’t want him around anymore. The swing through Texas had been meant as Kilduff’s final presidential trip before leaving—and now he found himself the ranking press aide on the trip, ushering in a new administration, while O’Donnell, his antagonist, mourned the fallen idol.

Stoughton’s first thought was that he needed to change the film in his Hasselblad camera. He’d been shooting color film that day in Dallas, but in 1963 color took nearly two hours to process and the wire services couldn’t even transmit a color photograph. If he was shooting for history, he needed speed.

“Everybody has always said over the years, in retrospect, why didn’t you shoot that in color?” he recalled later. “Well, that’s why. Time was of the essence.”

(It would be nearly a year, in fact, before most Americans realized that Jackie Kennedy’s suit was pink; color images from that day weren’t widely circulated until a late-1964 Life magazine special report included color photos of the Dallas arrival and still frames of Abraham Zapruder’s amateur footage of the shooting.)

His black-and-white film loaded, Stoughton heard the vehicles with Kennedy’s body arrive just after 2 PM, and he shot photos from the plane’s front entrance as the hearse pulled up at the back steps. Disregarding the Dallas coroner’s order that the President’s corpse remain in the city, Kennedy aides had manhandled the casket through the crowded hallways of Parkland Hospital, past priests, medical workers, and security, and out into a hearse—racing as quickly for Love Field as they could.

Those who had stayed behind at Parkland—among them, the widowed First Lady and aides O’Donnell, Larry O’Brien, and Dave Powers—were true Kennedy loyalists. “According to the strict letter of the law, I should now be with Johnson . . . but I felt my real duty was to take care of Jacqueline Kennedy,” recalled O’Donnell, who had been in charge of travel and security for the trip.

Now Secret Service agents pulled open the hearse doors, as those aides gathered to carry their boss home. General Ted Clifton, who had run Kennedy’s daily intelligence briefings, appraised the stairs nervously: “Do you suppose we can get it up there?”

But first things first: The casket wouldn’t budge from the hearse. Unbeknownst to the novice pallbearers, hearses have a mechanism that automatically lock a casket into place. So the men kept pushing and pulling, fighting the hidden lock. Then one crack, and a second crack. With so much muscle and emotion arrayed against it, the casket finally gave, with a piece of the trim and one entire handle tearing away.

The steps Kennedy had walked down just two hours before—vibrant and triumphant—now bore his lifeless body. “It was too narrow to accomplish this without some difficulty,” recalled O’Brien, who labored with other aides and Secret Service agents to carry the half-ton casket up. Activity on the tarmac fell eerily silent. Nearby, Air Force personnel saluted.

As the first Catholic President began his journey home, his grieving Irish Catholic aides fell back on their own traditions: Mary Gallagher fingered a rosary and David Powers, who had worked with Kennedy since his first run for Congress, stood aside and made the sign of the cross. He had been perhaps JFK’s closest friend, a partner and political adviser from Kennedy’s first political speech in Boston in 1946 until his last morning in Fort Worth. Kennedy, Powers would say later, “was the greatest man I ever met, and the best friend I ever had.”

Many hands wrestled the casket—a solid-bronze Elgin Britannia, the very best at Vernon Oneal’s Dallas mortuary—into the fuselage and around the partition cut open by the crew, then lowered it to the floor. As his hand let go and he looked up for the first time, Kennedy aide Larry O’Brien saw LBJ and Lady Bird standing in the doorway watching them: “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson on the plane had an element of surprise [for us], in the sense we hadn’t even thought about the successor. Our concentration was totally on what was transpiring at the moment.”

O’Brien’s thoughts tripped over one another. This was Jack’s plane. This was the President’s plane. LBJ had his own plane. Why was he on Kennedy’s plane? Then the realization: LBJ was the President.

Jackie had followed the casket up the stairs, and for the first time since the assassination, around 2:10 PM, the two groups—the Johnson team and the Kennedy team—came together face to face in the small, tight aft compartment. Theirs had been an uneasy alliance since the campaign. Johnson, who had traded the power of Senate majority leader for the powerlessness of the vice-presidency, was too coarse and rough for the blue-blood Kennedys. He’d been shunted aside, forced to wring his hands in silence in Cabinet meetings as his views went unexpressed. (“I detested every minute of it,” he said later of his office.)

Now the roles had been reversed, in an instant. Neither party was sure of what should—or would—come next. Jackie sat in one of the two seats left behind in the aft compartment, across the aisle from the awkwardly placed casket.

Lady Bird, who lacked Jackie’s poise and presence, summoned her courage and went to comfort the widow in the rear. “It was a very hard thing to do, but she made it as easy as possible,” Lady Bird recalled.

Jackie Kennedy, the most glamorous woman in America, looked shattered. Lady Bird’s eyes swept over the former First Lady: Jackie’s leg was almost entirely covered in blood, as was her right glove.

That’s her husband’s blood, Lady Bird thought, saying later, “Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights—that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed and caked in blood.” But Lady Bird felt a pang of envy even as she gazed upon Jackie’s terrible grief. Jackie had always worn gloves so elegantly, so easily. It was a skill and a look that had always escaped the Texan wife.

“I would have done anything to help her,” Lady Bird recalled, “but there was nothing I could do.”

Their conversation was halting, a stream-of-consciousness expression of grief and emotion. “Oh, Lady Bird, it’s good that we’ve always liked you two so much,” Jackie said. Then later, “What if I had not been there? I’m so glad I was there.”

“Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, you know we never even wanted to be Vice President and now, dear God, it’s come to this,” Lady Bird said. Words failed her, and in an attempt to be comforting, she went a step too far: “What wounds me most of all is that this should happen in my beloved state of Texas.” The words fell flat between them. Lady Bird instantly regretted them—her Texas pride mattered little in the face of such all-consuming sorrow.

She asked if Jackie would like her to summon someone to help her change, but she declined: “Perhaps later I’ll ask Mary Gallagher, but not right now.” Then she paused and a fierceness came into her otherwise empty voice: “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”

When Lyndon Johnson spoke with her, she addressed him out of habit as “Lyndon” before she caught herself: “Oh, excuse me. I’ll never call you that again. I mean Mr. President.”

“I hope you’ll call me that for the rest of your life,” Johnson replied, trying to be comforting.

But he wasn’t just Lyndon anymore.

“Something in the magic of the word ‘Mr. President’ caused everyone in the cabin, longtime personal friends, to view him in a totally different way,” aide Jack Valenti said later. “It was the kind of feeling that obscured old friendships.”

Time sped up for some passengers and slowed down for others. Nearly everyone later incorrectly recalled the time certain events happened—with minutes counting for hours and vice versa. What some felt was an hour between the casket’s arrival at 2:02 and the swearing-in was actually closer to 30 minutes. “The tempo and atmosphere in the plane were one of near hysteria, blank, an opaque kind of grief, stunned silence,” Valenti recalled.

Generals Clifton and McHugh, the two highest-ranking military men on the plane—their pristine uniforms now soaked with sweat from carrying the casket in the heat—knew their duty. Clifton, a West Point graduate who had fought his way through Italy, France, and Germany, now stood stiffly at attention beside the coffin, the lone honor guard observing a military custom since time immemorial: A fallen commander in chief is never left alone.

McHugh turned to O’Donnell: “Should we get airborne?”

“Why don’t we leave?” Jackie echoed.

With O’Donnell’s assent, McHugh ran for the cockpit, breezing past the closed door of the presidential stateroom, where LBJ was once again on the phone to Washington.

In the minutes that followed, a scene ensued that would have been comic but for the plane’s weight of sadness: McHugh traversed the length of the aircraft five times, never encountering Lady Bird or President Johnson—concerned only with getting his dead commander in chief out of Dallas—and thus never realized the new President was aboard.

O’Donnell was concerned that official Dallas would want the deceased President back: They’d killed him—now they wanted to keep him. “I kept looking out the windows,” he recalled, “expecting to see the flashing red lights of a dozen Dallas police cars, coming with a court order to stop our takeoff.” (Unknown to anyone then, the Dallas district attorney had ordered the coroner to let Air Force One depart unhindered.)

“You leave right now,” O’Donnell commanded General McHugh when he returned to the rear and Air Force One still wasn’t moving.

“Please, let’s leave,” Jackie pleaded to McHugh a second time.

Doubling back to the cockpit after a few minutes had passed without the engines starting up, McHugh couldn’t understand why Swindal wasn’t acting immediately on his command to take off. He ordered Swindal a second time, now angrily: “Take off! The President is aboard!”

“Mr. Kilduff says we can’t,” Swindal flatly replied.

Johnson, with few of his own people around, had quickly seized on Mac Kilduff as a key liaison—and the only press aide available. He had assigned Kilduff to set up the swearing-in, and the assistant press secretary was now busily moving through the cabin, arranging a ceremony. He found Johnson aide Liz Carpenter in the plane’s aisle: “Liz, there’s a pool that wants to go on this plane—a news pool. What shall we do?”

“What do you recommend?” replied Carpenter, who had spent nearly 20 years as a reporter in Washington before becoming the first female vice-presidential executive assistant.

Kilduff burst into tears: “God, I don’t know what to recommend.”

Carpenter grabbed his arms: “Mac, tell us what you recommend. That will be what we do.”

“I recommend you have a pool,” he said.

After checking with Johnson, he ended up pulling aboard three reporters to witness the swearing-in: Newsweek’s Charles Roberts, UPI’s Merriman Smith, and Sid Davis of Westinghouse Broadcasting Co.

But meanwhile, at Swindal’s reply, McHugh’s anger boiled over, the emotion and horror of the last hour overflowing. What was some civilian press twerp doing countermanding the order of an Air Force general?

“Not until Johnson has taken the oath,” Kilduff tried to explain, when McHugh confronted him outside the cockpit.

“Johnson isn’t here,” McHugh argued. “He’s on the backup plane.”

“Then you go back and tell that six-foot Texan he isn’t Lyndon Johnson,” Kilduff replied. “We’re not going to Andrews until the President has been sworn.”

McHugh’s unwitting reply captured the entire day’s confusion and sadness and, for all intents and purposes, ended his military career: “I have only one President and he’s lying back in that cabin.”

“I was flabbergasted,” O’Donnell recalled. “Johnson could have waited until he got to Washington and spared all of us on Air Force One that day, especially Jackie, a lot of discomfort and anxiety.” But the plane’s schedule now revolved around Lyndon Johnson’s wishes. There were two Presidents onboard, yes, but only one of them counted for official purposes. JFK was no longer Passenger Number One.

It was an uncomfortable realization that each member of the traveling party came to in turn, some more abruptly than others.

While waiting for Judge Hughes, Jackie Kennedy decided that while she wouldn’t change her clothes, she could clean herself up. She took a step from the aft compartment toward the presidential bedroom and opened the door—only to find LBJ sprawled on the bed, her bed, dictating to Marie Fehmer. Johnson had realized in the interim that as uncomfortable as the room made him, it was the one space on the plane where he could have privacy.

He and Jackie looked at each other for a moment, and Johnson—hurriedly, guiltily—stood to exit, squeezing by her in the tight passageway. “We scurried out of that bedroom,” Fehmer said. “It was really embarrassing.”

Jackie was left in the room where she’d last been alone with her husband that morning. She moved to the bathroom, looking at herself in the mirror, and proceeded to wipe the blood and hair from her face with a Kleenex. She immediately regretted it, thinking, History! Why did I wash the blood off? I should have left it there, let them see what they’ve done.

Among the Kennedy men, there came a dawning resentment that a murder in Texas had put a Texan in charge, upsetting the established balance of power.

“There is a tremendous commotion going on between two groups,” McHugh recalled in a 1978 oral history, “one having lost in a dreadful way a very, very loved President and being afraid of the next President, who they knew as very nervous and choleric and very strong.”

But Johnson intuitively knew the tightrope he had to walk in the hours ahead: The voters hadn’t chosen him as their leader; they had chosen the young, promising, glamorous Jack Kennedy. He had to preserve his fallen boss’s mantle, showing continuity, and turn it to his own use. He needed Kennedy’s men.

Around 2:20, while waiting for the swearing-in, he summoned O’Brien and O’Donnell to the stateroom. “I simply couldn’t let the country think I was all alone,” Johnson said later of the sudden transition. “I was a man in trouble, in a world that is never more than minutes away from catastrophe.”

He was seated in one of the conference-table chairs when the two men arrived—they both noticed he wasn’t sitting in the President’s desk chair—and he asked them to stay on. “I need your help,” he said. “I need it badly. There is no one for me to turn to with as much experience as you have. I need you now more than President Kennedy needed you.” Johnson’s thumb gestured toward the rear. Toward the casket. Both O’Brien and O’Donnell were noncommittal, their grief clouding and confusing thoughts of the future.

More aides and officials were piling into the plane. Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, who had been sitting in the front seat of the presidential limo and had failed to shield Kennedy after the first shot, looked around the staff cabin of Air Force One and was struck by how many aboard he didn’t recognize. “Do you know all these people here?” he asked Rufus Youngblood. Youngblood didn’t, but another agent had begun tracking down names to go with all the exhausted faces.

That agent found one face everyone on the plane was pleased to see reunited with the presidential party. Chief Warrant Officer Ira Gearhart, the so-called “bagman,” had had a difficult day keeping up with the unfolding events, especially because theoretically he was never supposed to be more than a few steps from the President. His 30-pound locked black suitcase was known in official circles as “the football,” and it contained all the launch protocols for the country’s nuclear triad—its intercontinental missiles, bombers, and submarines. He carried booklet after booklet describing various target packages and how many casualties each would cause, lists carefully refined since the Cuban missile crisis the year before, when Kennedy had expressed his frustration at the lack of good retaliation choices. The plans were now grouped under three headings—Limited Attack Options, Selected Attack Options, and Major Attack Options—but the military aides who carried the football referred to the choices more colloquially: Rare, Medium, and Well Done.

For nearly ten minutes at Parkland Hospital—as the President of the United States lay dying from an assassin’s bullet and no one yet knew the scope of the attack on the government—Gearhart had been lost in the hallways because of a miscommunication between the President’s and the Vice President’s Secret Service details. Then he and General Clifton had been left behind entirely when LBJ’s entourage raced for Love Field—leaving the United States, for nearly half an hour, impotent in the face of, say, a Soviet surprise attack. They’d only just made the motorcade with Kennedy’s body.

Bill Moyers, the associate director of the Peace Corps and a Johnson confidant, had reached Air Force One with only the most extraordinary effort—he’d been in Austin at the next stop of the presidential visit when news of the shooting arrived. He chartered a plane, receiving in the air special permission to land at Love Field, where he made it onboard to volunteer his services to LBJ.

Also pressed into service was the owner of an obscure Houston advertising and political-consulting firm. Jack Valenti had been along temporarily to help Johnson with the Texas trip and was expecting to return home to Houston that evening. But as soon as Johnson got aboard Air Force One, he pointed to Valenti: “I want you on my staff. You’ll fly back with me to Washington.”

Valenti’s instant response embarrassed him as quickly as he said it: “But Mr. President, I don’t have any clothes.” After Johnson reassured him that aides could gather some things to wear, Valenti’s second protest was almost as flustered: “But I don’t have a place to live.” Johnson volunteered that Valenti could stay with him in Washington, and that’s exactly what happened for the 11 days ahead. Valenti would become Johnson’s most loyal aide in the years to come—and call Washington home from that day forward. He never returned to Houston.

As they waited for the judge, LBJ downed a quick lunch of vegetable soup and crackers, a pause for food during which the day’s events began to catch up with him. The adrenaline rush from 115 minutes earlier, when Rufus Youngblood had climbed on top of him in the back seat of the vice-presidential limo to shield his body, began to dissipate. Johnson looked at Dave Powers and said heavily, “It’s been a week since I got up.”

The soup became a popular item onboard among hungry staffers, but the three Kennedy secretaries—Mary Gallagher, Pam Turnure, and Evelyn Lincoln—continued to decline Marie Fehmer’s offers of sustenance. William Manchester claimed in his 1967 book, The Death of a President, that the secretaries were too angry at the Johnsons to accept their food, but Gallagher strongly denied that: “We were just too numb to eat.”

Up in the cockpit, Andrews Air Force Base radioed, eager to find out the plane’s plan: “What is your estimated time of departure?”

“In a few minutes,” the crew responded.

“Do you have any passengers aboard?”

“Full load—40-plus.”

“Is Mrs. Kennedy aboard?”


As she raced to the airport in her red sports car around 2:10 PM, Judge Sarah Hughes tried to recall the presidential oath of office. “The essentials of every oath are the same,” she recalled later. “I was not afraid.” The Dallas police chief spotted her car as she approached Love Field and cleared a path. As she drove onto the tarmac, her mind registered for some reason that the wild rambler roses that covered the airport fence weren’t blooming. They were all briars and thorns.

Chief Jesse Curry escorted her to the plane. A flight steward who had been assigned to wait for the judge saw a big Texan in his Stetson approach and stepped forward to greet the man he assumed was the jurist: “Judge, will you come with me?”

“Oh, just a minute,” the chief said, awkwardly gesturing to the small, 67-year-old woman behind him.

Air Force One looked majestic to Hughes. “It seemed to exemplify the strength and courage of our country,” she recalled thinking as she walked up the ramp around 2:30. Aboard, though, she found a grim silence.

Lady Bird Johnson saw Judge Hughes, whom she had always liked, and thought briefly, I’m glad it’s her. They had spent time together at the Johnson ranch just two months earlier—a joyous day filled with barbecue, riding, and training sheepdogs. Now Hughes looked at her stricken friends. “There was nothing to say, nothing that could be said,” she recalled. “I embraced them both, silently, feeling it was the best way to express my grief for them and for all of us.”

And yet if her presence pleased and steadied the Johnsons, the bespectacled judge was a nonentity to the Kennedy team, who were frustrated by the delay and still worried that Dallas officials might try to reclaim the President’s body. “I didn’t know Judge Hughes from a hole in the wall,” Lawrence O’Brien recalled. When she was introduced to Jackie, Lyndon Johnson explained that Hughes had been appointed by the late President.

“I loved him very much,” the judge told her. Jackie was distant, not acknowledging Hughes’s sentiment. “You sensed that shock and grief had taken her almost out of reach, and yet there was that deep composure,” Hughes recalled. “It stayed with me for days afterwards.”

But Jackie may have been having a different thought entirely: She told journalist Theodore White a week later that when she got to the plane, she quickly realized: No one really wants me here. No one knew how to treat me, what to say, or what role I should be playing.

Kilduff and the Johnson aides began to herd the passengers toward the main staff area, eventually gathering more than 26 people in a space barely larger than a hotel room. One agent remained with the late President’s body in the rear.

“Where do you want us, Cecil?” Johnson said, turning to the Army photographer onboard.

The new President’s use of Stoughton’s first name marked another change. Kennedy had always referred to the photographer as “Captain.” LBJ was less formal.

Cecil it was.

Stoughton assessed the tight space and began to gesture, placing the officials as a theater director would. “You’ll have to be here,” he told LBJ. “I’m going to be over here with my back up against the bulkhead. I’m going to be standing on this leather couch so I can get up above and have eye-to-eye contact.”

Marie Fehmer had scribbled down the oath as Katzenbach had dictated it, then carefully typed it onto a little Air Force One note card for Hughes to read. (Valenti, on the phone, had asked the deputy attorney general where he’d found the correct wording of the presidential oath. Katzenbach’s smile, Valenti recalled, could almost be heard over the phone: “In the Constitution.”)

Waiting for the ceremony to begin, Johnson spotted Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s longtime personal secretary, in the room and leaned over to kiss her hand. When Jackie Kennedy didn’t appear after a few minutes, Johnson turned to O’Donnell: “She said she wants to be here when I take the oath. Why don’t you see what’s keeping her?”

O’Donnell found her combing her hair in the presidential bedroom and asked whether she’d like to step out for the ceremony. Jackie said, “I think I ought to. In the light of history, it would be better if I was there.”

By Liz Carpenter’s estimate, the entire group waited quietly for five minutes before Jackie appeared, but it might have been as short as a minute or two. Jackie took up her position in the center of Stoughton’s view. “She seemed composed, ashen, and quivering—almost as though she were in a trance,” Carpenter recalled.

The five-foot-tall jurist stood before Jackie, with the somber six-foot-four Johnson towering over both of them.

The group paused for a moment as Kilduff realized they should record the oath, but no one had a tape recorder. “There’s a Dictaphone thing on the President’s desk,” Stoughton volunteered, and after some scrambling Kilduff had his arm outstretched with the microphone, holding on tightly to the five-inch reel recorder.

Just as Hughes, in her brown-and-white polka-dot dress, began, a military aide handed O’Brien a white box containing a Bible found in the presidential quarters. O’Brien interrupted the judge, handing her the book and saying, “This is a Catholic Bible.” It was a small book, just an inch thick, with a black leather cover emblazoned with a cross. Handmade out of calfskin, it had the initials JFK embossed on the inside cover. No one noticed in the moment that it wasn’t actually a Bible—it was a St. Joseph Sunday Missal, a prayer book the Catholic Church uses to lead the faithful through the annual cycle of Masses.

LBJ rested one hand on the book, raising his other one. “Normally a jovial, outgoing man, Mr. Johnson seemed subdued and was speaking almost in a whisper,” Newsweek’s Charles Roberts recalled later that day.

Hughes began to recite the famous words. During the presidential inaugurations every four years, the phrase breaks are carefully negotiated between the chief justice and the President-elect’s staff over the preceding weeks. But there was no discussion before Hughes plunged in, pausing for Johnson to echo each phrase.

“I do solemnly swear . . .

“. . . that I will faithfully execute . . .

“. . . the Office of President of the United States . . .

“. . . and will to the best of my ability . . .

“. . . preserve . . .

“. . . protect . . .

“. . . and defend . . .

“. . . the Constitution of the United States.”

The entire process took just 28 seconds, her words and his both barely audible to those even just a few feet away over the whining jet engine.

Hughes had reached the end of Fehmer’s transcription, but she felt compelled to ad-lib one further thought.

“So help me God,” she added.

Johnson repeated the phrase. It needed to be said, Hughes thought as relief passed over her. The presidential chair was no longer empty. Great as the tasks ahead were, this tall, quiet man had the ability and determination to perform them.

Charles Roberts of Newsweek wrote later of the ceremony, “It was careful, correct, considerate, and compassionate. Considering that it occurred at a time when no one knew the full implications of Oswald’s deed, and considering that there was no script to follow, it was a masterpiece of cool-headed improvisation. Johnson, in my eyes, was the coolest man in Dallas or aboard Air Force One.”

As they spoke, Stoughton carefully angled the camera to cut Jackie Kennedy off at the waist, obscuring her blood-soaked skirt and legs, and fired his camera 23 times during the oath. The images he captured still haunt half a century later. The faces of those around Johnson are grim and shell-shocked. Men stare off into the middle distance, lips pursed, arms crossed. Jackie’s blank mask epitomizes grief in a way no sculptor could ever depict. “Her eyes were open but unseeing,” Valenti recalled.

Although at the time much was made of the fact that none of the Kennedy aides were visible in the photo that circulated—fueling rumors that they were pushed aside by the Johnson team—Stoughton clearly captured at least six of them in other photos before and after: Admiral Dr. George Burkley, General Clifton, Kilduff, O’Brien, O’Donnell, and Powers, plus three women: Gallagher, Lincoln, and Turnure.

Yet there was certainly a sense of resentment and disbelief on the plane that the charismatic, young, and beloved New Englander was gone. No simple oath of office, many on Kennedy’s team felt, would now make the gruff Texan President.

Colonel Swindal, for one, remained in the cockpit through the hurried ceremony, busying himself with flight tasks and refusing to go back to the staff area. “I just didn’t want to be in the picture,” he said later. “I didn’t belong to the Lyndon Johnson team. My President was in that box.”

Muggsy O’Leary, the baggage master, was looking around, thinking, so many Texans. O’Brien, the anointed son of the fallen President, looked at Valenti, the newly anointed son of the new President, and thought: He’s on his way now.

Oath completed, responsibility fully assumed, LBJ dropped his hand, turned, and leaned over to kiss his wife’s forehead. The ceremony’s simplicity masked its remarkableness: Even as the aides and officials gathered on the plane, they knew nothing of the assassin who had felled their commander in chief, knew nothing about the global response—whether this was a lone wacko, the start of a Soviet attack, or a subversive plot against the country.

Yet with just a few words, power transferred simply to a new man and, with it, the reins of a nation and the control of all of its nuclear weapons. There had been no discussion of any other course—the Constitution dictated that Lyndon Johnson would become President, and so he did. It was the only time in the 40 years of the Cold War—which just a year earlier, in 1962, had nearly turned hot during the Cuban missile crisis—that the leader of one of the superpowers had been murdered and control had passed seamlessly to the next in line.

After the presidential kiss, Lady Bird, her eyes still clouded by tears, stepped toward the assassinated leader’s wife, reaching forward to clasp her hand. “The whole nation mourns your husband,” she said. Then it was LBJ’s turn to hold Mrs. Kennedy’s hand. Emotions swirled in his head, but he recalled later how struck he had been in that moment by Jackie’s bravery and nobility.

“God bless you, little lady,” the Dallas police chief, Jesse Curry, said. “You ought to go back and lie down.”

“No thanks, I’m fine,” the 34-year-old widow replied, mustering what seemed to be every ounce of her energy to smile weakly.

Curry’s final comment sounded almost as if he were asking her for forgiveness: “We did everything we could.”

Jackie moved toward the plane’s rear, where the casket lay, and sequestered herself in the aft compartment with her husband’s body. She barely moved for the next two hours.

Then LBJ issued his first order: “Now let’s get airborne.”

It was 2:41 PM CST when the other three engines began to wind up.

Judge Hughes, her moment in history finished, left the plane with the other Dallas officials. At the bottom of the stairs, a man stopped her and asked for the note card with the oath, and she unthinkingly handed it to him, a piece of history now lost. Stoughton quickly left the plane, too, en route to the Dallas Morning News, where he could develop and distribute his photographs of the oath-taking, carrying his camera in one hand and the Dictaphone tape in the other.

“I had the only living, breathing record of what had just happened,” Stoughton recalled. “Turned out to be the best picture I ever made.” (During a 2007 Antiques Roadshow segment near Stoughton’s retirement home in Florida, a year before he died, appraisers valued his copy of the famous photograph, signed by LBJ “With high regard and appreciation,” at $50,000.) Yet one key picture from that day was never snapped: The plane was so crowded that Stoughton didn’t make it to the back, where Kennedy’s coffin lay. “That’s one of the sorrowful things of my career, that I didn’t get a decent picture of the casket onboard,” he said in a 2002 oral history.

The door closed behind Stoughton, Curry, and Hughes—as well as the sole broadcast journalist who had been aboard, Sid Davis of Westinghouse—and the plane began to move almost immediately.

The Love Field tower radioed Swindal: “Air Force One, you are cleared for takeoff, runway 31L.”

The four Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines, each capable of producing 18,000 pounds of thrust, began to scream as Swindal raised them to maximum throttle. The plane, which had carried Kennedy on his happiest days as President and his darkest, would bear him on one final trip. It began to move forward, slowly at first, then faster.

The President’s casket rattled next to Jackie as she sat in the aft breakfast nook. The new President in his cabin, already on the phone again, was pushed into his seat by the acceleration. As the plane sped up, O’Donnell relaxed a bit: At least now Dallas wouldn’t steal back the body of his President. John F. Kennedy was going home.

At 2:47, as the engines pushed the plane past 150 knots, takeoff speed, Swede Hanson called “V-1,” Colonel Swindal eased his yoke back, the plane tilted upward, and Air Force One’s wheels left the Texas soil.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had dreamed of the presidency since the earliest days of his career, who had toiled in that same Texas soil as a dirt-poor boy from the hill country, had officially been commander in chief for nine minutes. Jackie Kennedy would never return to Dallas—her first trip there would be her last.

Air Force One banked toward the northeast as news of its takeoff passed through the military radio channels, using the plane’s longstanding Secret Service code name: “Angel is airborne.”

Part II. In the Air

The world had barely kept up with Lyndon Johnson in the turmoil following the shooting. For nearly an hour after Walter Cronkite announced on CBS that Kennedy was dead, the public had no idea where Johnson was. Reporters heard only that he would take the oath of office at Love Field at 2:35 PM, just three minutes before Judge Hughes swore him in. By the time word spread that Johnson had taken the oath officially as President, Air Force One was already flying back to Washington—the country’s new chief executive out of reach and out of sight for two seemingly interminable hours.

Nor did anyone on earth know who was and was not aboard Air Force One. No list had been left behind in Dallas. Three times, the military radioed Air Force One to ask whether Mrs. Kennedy was aboard. In the muddled news reports following the shooting, an erroneous announcement had gone out over the Associated Press wire that a Secret Service agent had been killed. At home in Washington, the wife of agent Bill Greer, who had been driving the presidential limousine, spent the duration of the flight thinking her merely incommunicado husband was the dead agent.

At one point, well after Air Force One’s departure from Dallas, the Air Force in Washington called the presidential plane as it sorted out whom to expect in Washington.

“Air Force One—this is the Air Force Command Post,” the radio squawked. “If possible, request the names of the passengers onboard, please.”

“We have 40-plus,” the plane responded.

“Forty people! Is that affirmative?”


“Can you tell me in regard to number one and number two—the top people?”

“Roger,” Air Force One explained. “The President is onboard. The body is onboard, and Mrs. Kennedy is onboard.”

Never before or since has Air Force One carried two Presidents at once—one dead, one alive. Never before or since has a Vice President witnessed the murder of his President. Never before or since in the nuclear age has an assassination forced the government into a panicked transition from one chief executive to another. And never before or since have the aides of the fallen President and the incoming President been locked together for hours in an aluminum tube, with one another and their own thoughts.

In fact, we may never know precisely how many people were aboard Air Force One as it took off for Washington—a sore point for conspiracy theorists in the decades since. A steward’s handwritten flight manifest, which now lies in the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, was obviously done hastily while the plane was still on the ground in Dallas—it lists “Capt Stoughton” as a passenger. The 41 people aboard are listed in an orderly manner, line by line, grouped by rank and organization—and then handwritten in the left margin are the names of the two journalists brought who made the flight: M. Smith and C. Roberts.

Scrawled at the bottom of the page by a hand obviously unsure where to place such a tragic piece of information are words that make a reader pause: “Also body of Pres. K—.” (See the full manifest here.)

Normally there would have been as many as a dozen Air Force staff on the plane, including the three-person cockpit crew—the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer—stewards, and a baggage master as well as members of the White House Communications Agency, responsible for the plane’s communications.

The Secret Service’s official manifest, recreated in February 1964 by Roy Kellerman, one of the agents aboard, lists the 13 crew members the Secret Service believes were onboard “for the entire trip to Texas,” but Kellerman also lists the photographer Cecil Stoughton as a passenger, though he wasn’t on the actual flight back to Washington. Meanwhile, agent Paul E. Landis, Jr., one of those assigned to Jackie Kennedy, was definitely onboard—he even helped carry the President’s casket on and off, and other Secret Service records confirm his presence. But he’s not listed on either the Air Force One manifest or even the official Secret Service manifest delivered to the Warren Commission.

Two of JFK’s press aides, Christine Camp and Sue Vogelsinger, were hurriedly removed from the plane moments before takeoff and so figure into some accounts of the plane’s flight even though they weren’t onboard at departure, and William Manchester’s book The Death of a President erroneously identifies as a passenger Marty Underwood, a Democratic advance man, who actually returned to DC on Air Force Two.

While the country wrestled with the news of Kennedy’s assassination and the hunt for his killer unfolded, that odd assortment of friends, rivals, and strangers who had assembled at Love Field found themselves pressed together under the most intense circumstances, eight miles above their devastated nation, dodging storm clouds at nearly 600 miles per hour as they raced home.

Much has been made in political mythology of the slights, factions, and egos present on the Boeing 707 that afternoon, how the Johnson people pushed aside the Kennedy men, disrespecting the widow even as her husband’s blood dried into her Chanel-inspired suit. But a comprehensive examination of the day’s flight reads less like a Machiavellian case study than an intensely human story of four dozen people—most of them shell-shocked, afraid, and confused—and their desperate push to figure out what had happened and how America would continue on.

They had two hours and 12 minutes together to mourn their fallen leader and create a new government. Inside the 153-foot-long fuselage, with little privacy and limited communication with the outside world, loyalties evolved and careers began—and ended. Before the plane had even left the ground, that sorting-out began: Godfrey McHugh’s distinguished military career would never recover from his grief-stricken “I have only one President” comment made to Malcolm Kilduff. Within days, McHugh would be among the first staff cut from the Johnson White House.

Now, as the clock passed 3 PM CST (4 PM in Washington) and the jet soared ever higher—pilot James Swindal finally leveled off at 41,000 feet, near the very edge of the 707’s performance—the bright-blue Texas sky quickly gave way to the darker blues of twilight. The pilots plotted their path home, making contact with air-traffic controllers below: Fort Worth Center, Little Rock, Nashville, then over to Charleston, West Virginia, before the final handoff to Andrews Air Force Base control. They flew this time without the standard line of prepositioned Secret Service agents below in case of a forced emergency landing, though the Air Force had hurriedly put fighter jets on alert at each base they passed—the pilots buckled in and waiting on the runway in case radar showed any suspicious craft nearing Air Force One.

But in the sky, they were alone above the earth, flying without a net. Every 15 minutes, as it burned fuel at a rate of a gallon a second and the plane’s weight lessened, Swindal or copilot Lewis Hanson reduced the plane’s throttles to maintain its maximum speed of Mach .84. In its nearly 30 years of presidential service, the aircraft—tail number SAM 26000—would never fly higher or faster than it did that day.

For the first few minutes after takeoff, nearly everyone sat silently. The cabin began to cool down once it was airborne and the air conditioning was cranked up. The Johnsons sat in the forward compartment with the three Texas congressmen—Homer Thornberry, Jack Brooks, and Albert Thomas. The mourning Kennedy group sat in the rear; Generals Ted Clifton and Godfrey McHugh remained at attention next to the casket. To half of the plane, this was the end. To the other, it was only the beginning. But for some, that line shifted minute by minute.

The military and Secret Service agents theoretically treated every President the same. Yet McHugh, Swindal, and other military men found to their surprise that Kennedy had meant something special to them—and that loyalty wasn’t painlessly transferred to this new Texan. Meanwhile, Kilduff—already elbowed aside by the Kennedy men and now pressed into service—moved quickly to Johnson’s side, where he would remain for the next two years.

The November sun set quickly as the plane moved east, but a different darkness settled in the cockpit. “Suddenly realizing that President Kennedy was dead, I felt that the world had ended and it became a struggle to continue,” Air Force One pilot Swindal wrote later. “I know that I personally will never again enjoy flying as I did before.”

It wouldn’t be easy to create a government nearly alone eight miles above the earth in a span of time roughly equal to that of a Friday-night movie. Normally, Presidents have months between being elected and assuming office to plan transitions, interview staff, and establish policy.

In the forward cabin after takeoff, Lyndon Johnson grabbed a piece of blue notepaper, printed with the presidential seal and gold letters reading aboard air force one, and wrote a numbered list, 1 through 4:

1) Staff

2) Cabinet

3) Leadership


That last line sat empty, pregnant with all that he had to do.

And so the machinery of governance began to turn. He summoned Bill Moyers to help assign tasks. Then Johnson started working the phones, seeking out anyone who could help.

Technology limited communications with Air Force One. Although nine phone extensions were onboard, only three simultaneous conversations could take place with people one the ground. The top-of-the-line radiophone in the new Boeing 707 was a huge upgrade to Air Force One’s telecommunications system, but it still was hard to hold a conversation for long. “As we became airborne, I did not know what to expect,” the signalman and radio operator, Sergeant John Trimble, later recalled. “However, since they had to go through me, I knew that I was in for one hell of a ride.”

Trimble was busy every minute of the flight. “Andrews always had a waiting list of various officials who wanted to communicate with the plane,” he said. “Many times I had to decide with whom we would talk next.”

Each phone call was a struggle, the communications channel full of static and with a significant transmission lag. A typical conversation required lots of repeating and confirming that the other party had actually understood the transmission.

“You get that, operator?”

“Air Force One, Andrews. Say again, please.”

“. . . Helicopter . . . .”

“You getting that?”


“Let’s try them again.”

As Trimble summed up: “People talking to and from Air Force One on November 22 showed a great amount of patience.”

The new President’s calls, though, always took precedence. In stark contrast to later claims that Johnson had grabbed for power, one of his first orders of business was to reach out to the wounded.

Air Force One was somewhere over Nashville when Sergeant Trimble heard that LBJ wanted to speak to Rose Kennedy, the fallen President’s mother. Trimble cleared the best of the plane’s three frequencies, called down to Andrews, and was patched through to the White House, which in turn called Mrs. Kennedy on Cape Cod. After several handoffs and false starts, Lyndon and Lady Bird finally connected with the matriarch.

“Yes, Mr. President?” she said, formally—addressing the man with the title that until two hours earlier had belonged to her son.

“Mrs. Kennedy, I wish to God that there was something I could say to you, and I want to tell you that we’re grieving with you,” he said.

“Thank you very much. That’s very nice. I know you loved Jack and he loved you,” she replied warmly but formally.

“If there is anything we can do—” Lady Bird began. Then the two women’s words tripped over each other.

“Thank you, Lady Bird. Thank you, Mr. President,” Mrs. Kennedy said, ending the call.

The couple’s next call was back to Parkland Hospital, again routed through the White House switchboard, to the hospital room of the wounded governor John Connally.

“Can you hear me?” Lady Bird asked Nellie Connally. “The surgeon speaking about John was so reassuring. How about it?”

“The surgeon that just finished operating said that John is going to be all right unless something unforeseen happens,” Mrs. Connally reported.

“I know that everything’s going to be all right,” said LBJ, who in fact knew no such thing.

“Yes, everything’s going to be all right,” Lady Bird added.

“Good luck,” Mrs. Connally wished the new First Couple.

As the President worked his way through his calls, inbound messages stacked up. Four times, Tazewell Shepard, Kennedy’s naval aide back at the White House, tried unsuccessfully to reach Air Force One. And the White House communications team tried several times to put through a condolence message from Queen Elizabeth. They finally passed it along—in addition to three or four other calls from heads of state—to General Clifton’s aide to give LBJ when he arrived at the White House later that night.

Not all of the radio traffic, though, involved the President or covered matters of the highest urgency. Congressman Thomas, for instance, realized that no one was expecting him in Washington—he had been scheduled to stay in Texas a few days longer—and needed a favor from his staff.

“I need Capital 4-3121 extension 493,” Trimble radioed to the White House. “I’ll talk to anyone there.”

“Say again?” the White House switchboard replied. “It was Capital 4-3291 extension 493?”

“That’s 4-3121 extension 493.”

“Roger, roger. Understand. Anyone in particular there?”

“Roger. Anyone at that number.”

“Roger. Stand by.” Long pause. “Air Force One, Air Force One from Crown. Was that extension 493?”

“That is affirmative. Congressman Thomas’s office.”

“Say again the congressman’s name, as they say they have no such extension.”

“Congressman Thomas. Tango—Hotel—Oscar—Mike—Alpha—Sierra . . . .”

“Roger, roger, stand by,” the White House finally reported back. “Congressman Thomas’s office on the line.”

“Roger. This is the airplane. The congressman is requesting that you place his door keys under the doormat of his residence. Go ahead.”

“Oh, okay. Hello?” a confused female congressional aide replied.

“Hello, did you hear me?”

“There will be someone at his residence,” the aide said.

“I understand the house will be open. And someone will be in the residence. Is that correct?” the Air Force One signalman radioed. “Hello? I understand that the house will be occupied. That someone will be home. Is that right?”

Finally the White House chimed back in: “Air Force One, this is Crown, that is a Roger. She said that there will be someone at the residence.”

“Okay. Fine, Crown. Thank you very much,” Air Force One concluded the call.

Congressman Thomas wouldn’t be without clean clothes.

Between phone calls, the Air Force weather station kept the flight crew informed about tornados around Arkansas as they flew over around 3:30 PM. The glorious sunny day that the passengers had left behind in Dallas had given way to violent thunderstorms across much of the middle of the country. Andrews Air Force Base was concerned, but Air Force One was too high for it to matter much. Swindal and Hanson could see the storms out their windows on both sides, the plane weaving between the thunderheads, but the flight stayed smooth.

Johnson plopped into one of the chairs in the stateroom and gathered Bill Moyers, Jack Valenti, and Liz Carpenter around him. “I want you to put something down for me to say when we land at Andrews,” he said as he sipped a glass of water. “Nothing long. Make it brief. We’ll have plenty of time later to say more.” During the short conversation, Valenti’s eyes were drawn to the President’s large hands—they were absolutely steady. Valenti didn’t understand how someone under such immense and immediate pressure could ever be so collected. “I want to make clear that the presidency will go on,” Johnson said.

The three set to their own drafts, which Johnson then began to edit himself. Normally a regular drinker, he didn’t touch any alcohol on the flight; instead he sipped Sanka nearly the entire time.

Meanwhile, Marie Fehmer busily took dictation from passengers as they recounted the day’s events, each of them trying to piece together more than just snapshots of trauma. Congressman Brooks remembered hearing the three shots. Johnson aide Cliff Carter recalled Ken O’Donnell entering the room at Parkland and telling Johnson simply, “He’s gone.” Then the ride in unmarked cars back to Love Field, the motorcycle escort carefully guiding them through intersections. Admiral Burkley, the President’s physician, had been riding in the rear of the motorcade and never really had a chance to help the man whose life had been entrusted to him. Lady Bird commented to Carpenter, “It’s all been a dreadful nightmare.”

The plane’s arrival at Andrews preoccupied LBJ. Even as aides cautioned that Air Force One’s landing should be conducted secretly, Johnson wanted a standard press arrival. It mustn’t, he said, “look like we’re in a panic.” Everything must be normal.

“It’s the Kremlin that worries me,” Johnson said later, sitting at the stateroom desk. “It can’t be allowed to detect a waver.” He had seen Kennedy humiliated at the Vienna Summit early in his own presidency; he couldn’t show the same weakness. “Khrushchev is asking himself right now what kind of man I am. He’s got to know he’s dealing with a man of determination.”

Johnson, after all, was a man of determination. Once the Senate majority leader and among the most powerful people in Washington, he’d been sidelined by the Kennedy men, then ridiculed by them. They’d referred to him behind his back as “Uncle Cornpone,” but they’d done it so often that Johnson himself knew of it. He called the Kennedy men “the Harvards,” intending the label to show just as much disrespect as they meant toward him.

He had been a good soldier, fiercely loyal to Kennedy, all anyone could ask of a Vice President. Yet there had already been talk that Johnson might be dumped from the ’64 ticket.

Just that fall, the TV show Candid Camera had used the Vice President’s increasing obscurity to comedic effect, asking random people: “Who is Lyndon Johnson?” Everyone demurred; one man suggested the questioner look in a phone book. Others guessed a baseball player or an astronaut. No one correctly identified the man who was now leader of the free world, the man who had suddenly after three rifle shots assumed control of the largest weapons arsenal in the history of the planet, the man now huddled in the sitting room of Air Force One with just two hours until he had to introduce himself to the world and reassure a devastated nation.

Before Dallas, official Washington was so uninterested in Lyndon Johnson that his home telephone number at his estate, The Elms, in DC’s Spring Valley, was listed in the phone book. No one would bother harassing LBJ.

Now he was king. For as John Adams had said, there was but one piece of magic in the otherwise most worthless job in Washington: “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.”

Johnson had wanted to be President more than anything. Texas governor John Connally, who now lay wounded in the Dallas hospital, had once said about him: “He’s never had another thought, another waking thought, except to lust after the office.” Even as a teenager, working with mules on a back-breaking road gang building an unpaved highway outside Austin, Johnson had told the older men that he had big plans: “I’m going to be President of the United States one day.”

But he hadn’t wanted it like this. Not with his leader’s murder. Not even Lyndon Johnson was that hungry for power.

Now he and his wife were entering a new world. Lady Bird had never even seen the inside of Air Force One before boarding it to fly back to Washington. Vice President Johnson had begged to ride with the decade-younger Kennedy on Air Force One—and eventually given up after being rejected too often. “You don’t mean to say that Mr. Johnson is again insisting on riding with me?” Kennedy had once asked Evelyn Lincoln. Now it was Johnson who had brought Kennedy aboard to ride with him, holding the plane on the tarmac to wait for the widow and the casket.

It was an instant transition and transformation difficult for nearly anybody in the country to grasp, especially the four dozen people on Air Force One who had lost a friend, a boss, and a commander. Yet even far removed from their leader and the situation on that plane, the nation ground to a stop as word of Kennedy’s assassination spread.

In New York, the stock market tanked before trading was suspended altogether, and Broadway shut down for the night, the neon lights of Times Square blinking out one by one. People clustered in the streets around car radios. By the time the plane and its two Presidents landed at Andrews, nearly the entire country had heard news of Kennedy’s death and the tragedy had united Americans around their televisions. (Over the three days following the assassination, the average family watched 31.6 hours of news coverage—ten hours a day.)

JFK’s murder stunned the world like few other events in modern times. Sir Laurence Olivier stopped a performance at London’s Old Vic theater, announced the news, and asked the audience to stand as the orchestra played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Big Ben tolled for an hour. In Berlin, the city that had so loved JFK, 60,000 gathered for a torchlight procession. Even Moscow residents cried in the street.

As presidential historian Henry Graff put it later: “Lyndon Johnson’s ascent to the presidency came at the most traumatic moment in American political history.”

Charles Roberts and Merriman Smith, the two reporters aboard the plane, worked frantically to write their stories using scrounged supplies and borrowed typewriters. Aides and officials stopped by their workspace to whisper details or offer memories of the day. Brigadier General McHugh made one trip forward to remind them that he’d otherwise stood guard by the casket throughout the journey. Mac Kilduff passed along decisions as the staff made them, and President Johnson himself stopped by the newsmen’s table at one point to explain that he intended to ask the Kennedy Cabinet to stay on.

“We had so darn much work,” Newsweek’s Roberts said later. “This was the only time in my life that I ever felt like saying to a President of the United States, ‘Look, I know you want to talk, but I’ve got a lot of work to do.’ ”

In the main staff cabin, Roberts tried to ask Roy Kellerman some details of the shooting but couldn’t bring himself to interrogate the Secret Service agent for long. “His eyes were brimming,” Roberts later said, and Kellerman was far from alone: Many “strong men [were] crying on the plane that day,” Roberts recalled.

Next to Roberts, Merriman Smith—the mustachioed 50-year-old UPI wire correspondent known to everyone as “Smitty”—was trying to hide his inner turmoil as the day’s events unfolded. He had broken the news of JFK’s shooting—the 15 bells that had rung in every newsroom in the country alerting editors to his urgent FLASH from the motorcade press car: “Dallas, Nov. 22 (UPI)—THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY’S MOTORCADE IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS. JT1234PCS—”


Within 11 minutes of the shooting, Smith had dictated a 500-word story. He’d been feeding updates to UPI about the President’s death when Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood stopped him in the Parkland Hospital hallway and explained that he’d better get back to Love Field quickly: “Smitty, the President wants to go back to Washington.” It took the reporter a moment to process the words. I thought the President was dead. But then it clicked: Youngblood was Johnson’s Secret Service agent—Johnson was President now.

The reporter’s work that day would earn him a Pulitzer Prize. Sadly, this flight was now his second trip back to Washington with a fallen leader—he had been in Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1945 when FDR died. At the time, he hadn’t considered it fair to have to trade the great FDR for the nobody Harry Truman. Now—older, grayer, but just as prone to emotion—Smith found himself sitting with another presidential interloper.

“In JFK’s death,” he wrote in his diary a year later, “my sense of loss had taken the form of simply being unable to accept in my guts the coarse image and patois of LBJ.”

At times, it was as if there were two entirely different plane trips in progress.

The front of the aircraft was a hive of activity—Johnson aides and military and press officials scrambling for free radio time, workspace, and typewriters as they tried to report, assemble, and organize a government from miles above the earth. The rear, though, often seemed like the tomb it was, or an airborne Irish wake.

The trio of Kennedy aides whom the President had always jokingly called “the clowns”—O’Donnell, Powers, and O’Brien—joined Jackie there. There was little additional room in the aft compartment, so the other Kennedy aides were left to visit one at a time: Jackie’s press aide, Pamela Turnure; JFK secretary Evelyn Lincoln; and Secret Service agent Clint Hill. As they flew north, O’Donnell encouraged Jackie to have a Scotch. “I’m going to have a hell of a stiff drink,” he said. “I think you should, too.”

“I’ve never had Scotch in my life,” she replied, then paused. “Now is as good a time to start as any.”

But she barely touched the whisky. (Jackie drank only Scotch in the months ahead. She never once liked it, but it reminded her of the pain of that flight—a pain she didn’t want to forget.) The aides, though, took to the bottle with abandon.

Seated around a small table, one of the only things in the space not removed to fit the casket, they drank and drank. “It was like drinking water,” O’Donnell recalled. “It left us cold sober.”

Their drinking, though, made an impression on the new President, and not a favorable one. “I thought they were just wineheads,” Johnson said in a 1969 interview. “They were just drinkers, just one drink after another coming to them trying to drown out their sorrows. It was a peculiar situation that they sat back in the back and never would come and join us.”

LBJ asked O’Donnell three times to come forward to speak with him, but the Kennedy aide refused to budge. “I sat with her the entire trip,” he said of Jackie Kennedy. “She just wanted to talk. She talked the entire way.” They reminisced about the President, about the family, about the Kennedy family home in Hyannis. Dave Powers recounted the glorious days of the presidential trip to Ireland and the President’s favorite Celtic songs.

“You were with him at the start, and you’re with him at the end,” Jackie said to Powers and the others.

She was also already doing her own thinking.

The former First Lady was so far from her two children, so eager to be home—wherever home would now be after she moved out of the residence that she, her husband, and their children had known for the last two years. In some ways, she and JFK had never been closer than at the moment of his death.

Their marriage had strengthened and blossomed in the preceding months, the loss of newborn baby Patrick in August—their second child to die, after Arabella was stillborn in 1956—having brought the couple closer together. She had been gearing up for the campaign; Texas was the first time she’d been out on the campaign trail since becoming First Lady. But there would never be another day of campaigning together. Never another shared smile. Never another embrace. Never another laugh.

The couple hadn’t even slept together the night before; the hard mattress the President brought along on road trips was big enough for only one. She had slept in the other bedroom of their three-room hotel suite. “You were great today,” he had said before they went their separate ways at bedtime.

Yet she was holding it together—barely.

“That frail girl was close to composure, bringing to the surface some strength within her while we three slobs dissolved,” O’Brien said later.

Jackie began to plan. She remembered how her husband had loved Luigi Vena’s singing and decided that the Italian tenor should sing “Ave Maria” at the funeral. Next she determined that Cardinal Richard Cushing, the archbishop of Boston, who had married them, should say the Mass.

Dave Powers and Ken O’Donnell recalled visiting the grave of the couple’s deceased son, Patrick, the previous month in Hyannis with President Kennedy. Powers told Jackie what her husband had said as he stood at the grave: “He seems so alone here.”

“I’ll bring them together now,” Jackie said, the plans already forming in her mind. Her husband would be buried at Arlington, she decided, and Patrick would join him.

Conversations were halting; starting, stopping, and then restarting, overlapping. Evelyn Lincoln, at a loss for words, said, “Everything’s going to be all right.”

Jackie just looked at her: “Oh, Mrs. Lincoln.”

Throughout the flight, no one touched what Jackie called “that long, long coffin.” Mary Gallagher resisted leaning over to kiss it. The others around her—O’Brien, O’Donnell, and Powers—sat vigil, many of them lost in their own thoughts, of both remembrance and guilt: O’Donnell, speaking to the Secret Service that morning, had given the order to leave the armored bubble top off the presidential limo. (“Politics and protection don’t mix,” he had told the White House security chief, Jerry Behn, during one argument.)

At one point, Jackie Kennedy mused openly that her husband had been martyred like Abraham Lincoln. It was a theme the Kennedy people returned to again and again as their conversations—half wake, half plans—unfurled like the fields passing far below.

Jackie already worried about her husband’s legacy. He had been such a student of history. What would history now say about him? Not knowing that mere feet from her the UPI reporter was grieving deeply for her husband—holding LBJ’s accidental presidency against him even in its first hours—she worried about how the emotion-prone journalist would record the day: What is history going to see in this except what Merriman Smith wrote, that bitter man.

When the two camps collided, emotions—anger, fear, grief, often interconnected—ran high.

“Why don’t you get back and serve your new boss?” O’Donnell barked at General Clifton at one point when the intelligence aide came to the rear to ask a question.

“What’s eating him? I’m just doing my job,” Clifton said to General McHugh, who wasn’t in much better shape than O’Donnell. Standing stiffly at attention near the casket, McHugh repeated from time to time under his breath a phrase that was part statement, part question, part exclamation: “He’s my President, my President.” There was no confusion: He didn’t mean Johnson.

“To be the confidant and trusted emissary of the President, and now, by a freakish, ghoulish act of assassination to be isolated, alone, adrift, with the captain missing and a new helmsman in charge, this abrupt transition could not be handled by mere mortals,” Jack Valenti wrote later. “I didn’t see hostility. All I saw was grief—bitter, dry-teared grief.”

O’Donnell concurred: “Whatever resentment some of us might have felt, neither Dave [Powers] nor I remember any open display of antagonism against Johnson.”

Up front, Kilduff drank gin-and-tonics. He later estimated that he downed two-thirds of a bottle of gin while single-handedly juggling the duties of an entire press office.

“I needed that White House staff,” Johnson said later. “Without them I would have lost my link to John Kennedy, and without that I would have had no chance of gaining the support of the media or the Eastern intellectuals. And without that support I would have had absolutely no chance of governing the country.”

But he also knew he needed to be patient. Toward the end of the flight, Johnson canceled the staff meeting he had planned upon returning to Washington; he realized he couldn’t press the Kennedy men to transfer their loyalty immediately. He had with him Valenti and Moyers, though—the men who would replace O’Donnell and O’Brien in the inner circle of the new occupant of the Oval Office—and they worked steadily on his behalf, their loyalty already deepening even as the Kennedy men, the so-called Irish Mafia, stared into the abyss.

“All of us tried to comfort them in a quiet way, but they were still dazed from the whole thing,” Johnson aide Liz Carpenter explained. When Moyers went back at one point to ask for O’Donnell’s help on a matter, O’Donnell looked at him blankly: “Bill, I don’t have the stomach for it.”

And that was that. That night in Washington, only the congressional leadership would join Johnson at the White House.

General Ted Clifton called national-security adviser McGeorge Bundy to plan for the President’s arrival. “Two meetings tonight—[Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara and Bundy and the leadership about 7:30,” Clifton said.

“Does he mean the Democratic leadership only?” Bundy asked.

“Bipartisan leadership, and I’ll give you some names,” Clifton said, reading off the list Johnson had dictated: “Speaker of the House [John McCormack], Carl Albert, Hale Boggs, Leslie Arends, [Mike] Mansfield, [Hubert] Humphrey, [George] Smathers, [Everett] Dirksen, [Thomas] Kuchel, and [Bourke] Hickenlooper.”

Bundy—who referred to Johnson as “the Vice President” throughout the conversation out of habit—suggested that because the Cabinet Room was being rearranged and might not be ready in time, they should plan to meet with the congressional leadership in the Oval Office. But Clifton stopped him: Johnson didn’t want to be seen taking control too quickly. The White House wasn’t his home yet.

“He does not want to go into the mansion or in the Oval Room or the President’s Office or the President’s Study. So if the Cabinet Room isn’t ready, then put it in the Fish Room,” Clifton ordered over the scratchy connection.

“All right, I will,” Bundy said.

Given how carefully LBJ, even in the midst of a national crisis, orchestrated the power shift to lessen the pain of the Kennedy camp, he was stung by the accusations voiced four years later in William Manchester’s book that Johnson had brazenly seized the crown, shoving aside the grieving Kennedy team. “I did everything I could to show respect and affection and grief to Mrs. Kennedy,” LBJ said later. “I don’t know of any niceties that were overlooked at all, and what’s more, I think everybody in the party will say that.”

On the flight, the Secret Service pushed their new President to spend the night in the White House. It was safe there, they knew, and Rufus Youngblood urged him “to think of security first.”

But Johnson cut off the conversation: “We are going home to The Elms. That’s where we live. If you can protect us at the White House, by God you can protect us at home, too.” He did not want to seem presumptuous.

Because the Vice President of the United States didn’t have an official residence at that time—and wouldn’t until a house on the grounds of the Naval Observatory was designated as such in 1974—Johnson had commuted in to the White House each day from the Spring Valley neighborhood. (His home at 4040 52nd Street, Northwest, is now the Algerian ambassador’s residence.) He would continue to do so now as President—at least until the Kennedys had time to arrange their affairs.

His orders clear, Youngblood squeezed himself into the plane’s communications shack to call the White House security chief. The connection, again, was patchy at best—beset with static and garbled transmissions and packed with code names.

What are commonly known as “Secret Service code names” are actually designations given by the White House communications agency to officials and their families and are grouped around the same letters: All the Kennedy family names began with L: Lancer for JFK, Lace for Jackie, Lyric for Caroline, and Lark for John Jr. The Johnson family had received V names: Volunteer for Lyndon, Victoria for Lady Bird, Velvet for Lynda, and Venus for Luci. White House staff had names that began with W. Altogether, more than 200 were in use at a given time.

“I committed about 50 to memory and instructed others to use their last name,” radioman Trimble recalled later. Then there were separate code names for major destinations: Crown was the White House, Valley the Vice President’s residence at The Elms. “Originally, the code names were a good idea and did facilitate communications, but like most everything else in government, [they’ve] gotten out of hand,” Trimble recalled. It was a lot to keep straight in a conversation.

“Volunteer will reside at Valley for an indefinite time,” Youngblood transmitted. “I repeat: Volunteer will reside at Valley for an indefinite time. Victoria requests that Venus will go to Valley with agent.”

“Will you say again?” Jerry Behn asked from the White House. “Will you say again?”

“Venus should go out to Valley with agent,” a White House operator, also on the line, tried to clarify.

“That is a roger,” Youngblood said, sounding very far away from his colleagues at just the moment they needed to be working closely together. “That is a roger. Venus will go to Valley with agent. Victoria will go to Valley after first to Crown. Do you understand? Over.”

“Victoria will go to Valley after first going to Crown,” the White House operator repeated.

“Okay, that’s affirmative,” Behn said, but Youngblood still wasn’t sure the White House had actually heard the main piece of information he was trying to convey: The Secret Service had only a few hours to be ready for the President of the United States to live outside the White House indefinitely for the first time since Harry Truman had moved to Blair House during a post–World War II renovation.

“Do you also understand that for residential purposes Volunteer will reside at Valley?” he asked.

“That is affirmative,” Behn said, understanding. There was another short pause before Behn repeated for emphasis, “That is affirmative.”

Youngblood signed off: “All right—that is all the traffic I have at present.”

A few minutes passed, and then a further thought from Air Force One. The plane called back to the White House: Now that Johnson was President, the public telephone line at his house—the one that was in the phone book—should be disconnected and new, secure phones installed.

LBJ also talked to McGeorge Bundy directly throughout the flight, attending to what seemed to be a growing list of matters of state. Johnson was hungry for details of the unfolding assassination investigation. Half an hour after takeoff, word had come that a Dallas policeman, J.D. Tippitt, was dead. Then word that the suspected assassin was in custody, some guy named Lee Harvey Oswald.

Who was he?

The FBI implied he had ties to Russia. Was this a larger plot?

American military commanders around the world were moving their forces to a higher state of readiness, but neither Bundy nor Johnson advocated a general alert or a move to a higher so-called DEFCON.

Kilduff and Valenti made several trips to the rear of the plane to ask if anyone needed anything. The Kennedy men and Jackie barely acknowledged them. At one point, she looked at Clint Hill—the Secret Service agent whom she had helped clamber onto the trunk of the presidential limousine as it began to speed from the shooting scene—and asked, “What will happen to you now?”

Around 5 PM, Admiral George Burkley, Kennedy’s physician, spoke with the Secret Service and the military aides, realizing that one of the hardest conversations of the trip fell to him. He passed through the President’s sitting room and entered the silent, hallowed rear compartment to kneel next to the widow, her Scotch before her on the table. He explained that her husband would have to be autopsied.


“The doctors must remove the bullet—the authorities must know the type. It becomes evidence.”

“Well, it doesn’t have to be done,” she said.

“Yes, it is mandatory that we have an autopsy,” explained the admiral, who had served as Kennedy’s doctor since the second month of his administration. “I can do it at the Army hospital at Walter Reed or at the Navy hospital at Bethesda or any civilian hospital that you would designate.”

Burkley hoped he could arrange it at a military hospital—the commander in chief deserved that, and it would be the most secure facility possible. But in that moment he was willing to indulge almost anything Jackie wanted. She thought for a minute and then chose Bethesda; Jack, after all, had been a Navy man.

General McHugh later knelt beside her and asked again if she’d like to change clothes before landing. She said what she’d said in Dallas: “No, let them see what they’ve done.” She already regretted wiping the blood away earlier: If I’d just had blood and caked hair on my face when Cecil took that photograph, she thought.

Someone else suggested that Jackie could deplane on the right side of the aircraft, away from the press and the television lights.

“We will go out the regular way,” she said.

Ted Clifton volunteered that an Army honor guard would be ready to carry the President off the plane, but Jackie stopped him: “I want his friends to carry him down.”

She summoned Roy Kellerman, the head of JFK’s detail, and Dave Powers explained that the Secret Service agents who were with the President would bear him off the plane. Mrs. Kennedy wanted Bill Greer, his driver, to drive the ambulance. Greer, who had spent the plane ride replaying in his mind the turn onto Dealey Plaza, was touched. “Greer had been remorseful all day, feeling that he could have saved President Kennedy’s life by swerving the car,” O’Donnell recalled. “Jackie felt sorry for him.”

General Chester Clifton was known to most of his friends as Ted, but for official purposes he was code-named Watchman. After Kellerman had arranged for the autopsy, Clifton took over to plan the reception at the Air Force base.

“This is Watchman,” he radioed Behn, the White House security chief. “I understand that you have arranged for an ambulance to take President Kennedy to Bethesda. Is this correct?”

“It has been arranged to helicopter the body to Bethesda.”

“Okay, if it isn’t too dark. What about the First Lady?”

“Everyone else will be helicoptered into the South Grounds.”

“Are you sure that the helicopter operation will work? We have a very heavy casket.”

“According to Witness [naval aide Tazewell Shepard], yes.”

“Don’t take a chance on that,” Clifton ordered. “Also have a mortuary-type ambulance stand by in case the helicopter doesn’t work.”


“Now some other instruction. Listen carefully: We need a ramp put at the front of the aircraft on the right-hand side just behind the pilot’s cabin in the galley. We are going to take the First Lady off by that route.”


“Also, at the left rear—at the rear of the aircraft where we usually dismount, we may need a forklift rather than a ramp. A platform to walk out on and a forklift to put it on. The casket is in the rear compartments, and because it is so heavy we should have a forklift there to remove the casket. If this is too awkward, we can go along with a normal ramp and several men.”

“Affirmative. We will try for the forklift.”

“Next item,” Clifton continued. “There is to be normal press arrangements at Andrews. They should be in front of the aircraft because that is where he’ll come off. He is going to the White House by chopper.”

“Should the Secretary of Defense and others be at Andrews on your arrival?”

“No,” Clifton said. “I am about to call the White House. President Johnson wants to have the White House staff, the leadership of Congress, and as many of the Cabinet members available at the White House at 1830 [hours].”

“Affirmative,” Behn said from the ground, but Clifton wasn’t sure he’d been understood.

“Repeat that to me.”

“All the leaders of Congress, as many Cabinet members as possible at the White House at 1830.”

“And key members of the White House staff—[Ted] Sorensen, Bundy, et cetera,” he trailed off, then prepared to hand the call over to the head of Kennedy’s Secret Service detail. “Hold for Kellerman.”

“Have helicopter to transport President Johnson and party to the White House lawn,” Kellerman commanded Behn, who technically was his boss.


“Have White House cars 102 and 405 for transportation to hospital,” Kellerman said. “I will join [agent Clint] Hill and party at the Navy hospital.”

Two hours after leaving behind the city that had killed Kennedy, Colonel Swindal began his descent, swinging east over Middleburg toward the lights of DC in the distance.

Johnson excused himself from the group and stepped into the presidential bathroom. He gave himself a quick shave and combed his hair, wanting to present a polished look to the world as it gazed upon the new President for the first time. He put on a fresh shirt, straightened his tie, and put his suit jacket back on. The man whom critics thought too unpolished, too crude, too brusque to lead a nation stared at himself in the mirror: Was this presidential enough?

Air Force One glided home, over the Potomac River and a capital already in mourning, a distant yellow light resolving into an airplane as it neared the runway and the thousands of eyes searching the night sky for the first glimpse of the majestic hearse. Up and down the East Coast, commercial planes circled in midflight, diverted to clear a path for the presidential aircraft.

Colonel Swindal eased it onto the runway, the back wheels touching down first with a puff of white smoke, then the front, then the braking as Air Force One slowed to a stop. Reporter Charles Roberts looked up from typing the final pool report that would be handed out to the media. He checked his watch.

It was 5:59 PM in Washington.

The 35th and 36th Presidents of the United States were both home—Kennedy for the last time, Johnson for the first.

A military honor guard stood ready on the tarmac along with a Navy ambulance and a catering truck to lower the casket from the plane.

The press were all arranged with their microphones set, the TV lights ablaze. Diplomats had arrived en masse, as had the public, who gathered by the thousands outside the gates at Andrews. US government and military officials stood uneasily in the darkness. Senators Everett Dirksen, Hubert Humphrey, and Mike Mansfield waited near the press area. Nearby, helicopters were poised to whisk the President, the new First Lady, and her widowed predecessor across to “Crown”—the White House, the home that for the moment seemed to belong to neither the Johnsons nor the Kennedys.

As he stood to disembark, Johnson’s massive hand clenched a small piece of aboard air force one notepaper printed with the presidential seal—his seal now—with seven typed sentences to read to the press below, the sum total of his staff’s wisdom during the preceding flight. He had thoughtfully edited the statement, making changes to nearly every sentence, adding personal touches to the cold words on the page, changing, for instance, “the nation” to “we.”

Instead of a joke at the podium in Austin about his charismatic leader having survived the trip to Dallas, his final public words of the day would now be to claim control of a tragedy in his leader’s absence and to reassure a nation that he, Lyndon Baines Johnson—the poor boy from the Texas hill country who had graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College—stood ready to inherit command.

The words were hard to read, and he would stumble over them, trying to decipher in the cool Washington night air the pencil-scratched edits he had made:

“This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me it is a deep personal tragedy. I know the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bears.

“I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask only for your help—and God’s.”

His plea was heartfelt. The raw power Johnson had inherited in an instant—not just the office but ultimate control over the Polaris submarines hidden beneath the waves, the nuclear-armed alert bombers making lazy circles over the Midwest, the Minuteman missile crews sitting quiet vigils in their silos across the plains—had never before been given to a man under those circumstances.

History’s trajectory had been altered, and the world now waited to see what would come next. Ahead lay the unknown pressures of the Cold War, Fidel Castro, and Nikita Khrushchev; the drama of Martin Luther King Jr., a bridge in Selma, and the civil-rights movement; Vietnam, the Tet Offensive, and the draft; the Great Society, the ’68 Democratic convention in Chicago, Richard Nixon, and the moon landing. The seeds of what followed had already been laid—there were 16,300 advisers in Vietnam on November 22, 1963, and unknown to anyone aboard the plane, that very day a British rock band named the Beatles had released their second album.

The 1960s were poised to upend American life outside Air Force One. The accidental group of passengers brought together for this flight—all the friends, all the strangers, all the enemies, all the allies—would in the minutes and hours ahead disperse, never to reconvene. A decade later, the same airplane, SAM 26000, would fly Lyndon Johnson home to Texas for the final time after his own death in January 1973.

But all of that lay in the future.

For one last minute, as the stairs were brought forward, the plane and its emotionally spent occupants stayed silent. “Let’s get everybody together,” Johnson said, and the passengers clustered in the rear—the Kennedys closest to the door with the casket, then Johnson, then his aides and the congressmen behind him. Johnson reached through the crowded aisle to kiss the hand of Kennedy aide Pam Turnure.

Then, as those inside waited for the back door to open, a murmur passed through the length of the aircraft: The attorney general had boarded unexpectedly through the front door. Robert F. Kennedy, his face streaked with tears, ran through the communications shack staffed by the exhausted radioman Sergeant Trimble, passed through the forward galley with its depleted liquor cabinet, pushed his way through the crowded staff area where LBJ and Jackie had stood earlier with Judge Sarah Hughes, past the secretaries and the typewriters that just hours before had written out the oath of office, and through to the President’s cabin.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” he said, pushing through the knots of people. “Where’s Jackie? I want to be with Jackie.”

As Bobby Kennedy stepped into the President’s cabin, the new President of the United States—just hours into the greatest role of his life, hours into achieving his life’s sole dream under the worst imaginable circumstances—stuck out his hand, a gesture of warmth from a man not known for that.

His voice weighed down with emotion, Lyndon Johnson greeted RFK simply: “Bob.”

But the attorney general never broke stride, pushing right past his new boss, past everyone until he reached his brother’s widow, standing next to the bronze casket with the broken handle.

Her brown eyes turned toward him.

“I’m here,” he said.

“Oh, Bobby,” she said.

They hugged.

And the rear door of Air Force One opened.


The President’s Plane

The history and evolution of the aircraft that carries the commander in chief

Air Force One has never been a specific aircraft—it’s the call sign of any Air Force plane carrying the President. (The Secret Service uses a code name for the plane: Angel.)

For the first two decades of presidential flight, each aircraft had its own nickname. The press called FDR’s first one Sacred Cow, and it was known to air-traffic controllers as Army 7451. Later, planes were known by the abbreviation for Air Force Special Air Missions, such as Truman’s SAM 6505 and Eisenhower’s SAM 8610.

While consistent with air-traffic-control call signs, the system proved inadequate for the increasingly crowded skies of the 1950s and the critical status of the President’s plane in the nuclear age. The shorthand ended after radio confusion between the presidential plane and Eastern Airlines Flight 8610 during a flight to Florida in 1958. The standard call sign also didn’t distinguish whether or not the President was actually onboard.

In the nuclear age, as Cold War tensions escalated the need to know the commander in chief’s whereabouts, the military needed a specific call sign to designate the priority status of the President’s aircraft. The moniker Air Force One didn’t catch on with the public until the Kennedy administration.

On October 10, 1962, a new Boeing 707, tail number SAM 26000, arrived at Andrews Air Force Base for presidential service and was a model of modern transportation. At 152 feet long, it could carry 40 passengers and fly eight miles above the earth. Jacqueline Kennedy had tapped industrial designer Raymond Loewy—known for creating the logos for Shell and TWA as well as Coca-Cola’s redesign of its contoured bottle—to design a new look for the plane.

Loewy scrapped the traditional Air Force logo and chose a blue-and-white livery, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in large letters, oversize presidential seals, and the American flag—the design that has been used with few modifications up to the present day.

The initial layout of Air Force One made little sense: The presidential compartment and VIP meeting space were toward the rear, the traditional location for VIP cabins in the age of propeller craft because it was farthest from the engine noise. Later, the VIP cabins on Air Force planes were relocated to the front, where all first-class cabins in commercial planes are today.

But John F. Kennedy had just been happy to have the jet plane: He put 75,000 miles on it in short order, using it widely both within the US and abroad. Only a few months before his assassination, the same plane, SAM 26000, had carried him to Germany, where he pledged his friendship: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Departing West Berlin, he told his aides, “We’ll never have another day like this one.”

In August 1963, the plane shuttled Kennedy to Cape Cod and back during one of the President’s darkest periods, as he and Jackie suffered the death of their newborn baby Patrick. Air Force One pilot James Swindal and the small crew had grown to care deeply for the young leader. In the months before Dallas, Kennedy barnstormed ten Western states as reelection efforts geared up, and he spent a weekend relaxing with Bing Crosby in Palm Springs. Then, just days before Dallas, JFK flew to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of a new Polaris missile.

“During our world travels with President and Mrs. Kennedy it was apparent from the start that they were something special,” Colonel Swindal recalled, “the best we as a country had to offer.”

Who Was on the Plane?

While we may never know the complete list of passengers and crew aboard Air Force One’s flight back from Dallas on November 22, 1963, this is the most comprehensive list available based on eyewitnesses and written records.

President John F. Kennedy

  1. Jacqueline Kennedy
  2. President Lyndon B. Johnson
  3. Lady Bird Johnson
  4. Special Assistant to the President Kenneth P. O’Donnell
  5. Special Assistant to the President for congressional relations Larry O’Brien
  6. Special Assistant to the President David F. Powers
  7. Associate Director, Peace Corps Bill Moyers
  8. Congressman Homer Thornberry (Texas)
  9. Congressman Al Thomas (Texas)
  10. Congressman Jack Brooks (Texas)
  11. White House Assistant Press Secretary Malcolm “Mac” Kilduff
  12. Senior Military Aide General Chester “Ted” V. Clifton Jr.
  13. Air Force Aide General Godfrey T. McHugh
  14. President’s Physician Admiral Dr. George Burkley
  15. Personal Secretary to the President Evelyn Lincoln
  16. Personal Secretary to Mrs. Kennedy Mary Gallagher
  17. Press Secretary to Mrs. Kennedy Pamela Turnure
  18. Air Force One crew Sergeant George “Boots” Miller
  19. Air Force One crew Master Sergeant Joseph Giordano
  20. Vice President’s valet Staff Sergeant Paul J. Glynn
  21. Military aide Chief Warrant Officer Ira D. Gearhart
  22. Executive Assistant to the Vice President Liz Carpenter
  23. Partner, Weekley & Valenti ad and political-consulting agency Jack Valenti
  24. Secretary to the Vice President Marie Fehmer
  25. Aide to the Vice President Cliff Carter
  26. President’s valet George Thomas
  27. Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Presidential Secret Service detail Roy Kellerman
  28. Special Agent, First Lady’s Secret Service detail Clint Hill
  29. Special Agent, Presidential Secret Service detail John J. “Muggsy” O’Leary
  30. Special Agent, Vice-Presidential Secret Service detail Warren Taylor
  31. Special Agent, Presidential Secret Service detail Henry Rybka
  32. Limousine driver, Special Agent, presidential Secret Service detail William Greer
  33. Special Agent, Presidential Secret Service detail Stewart Stout
  34. Special Agent, Presidential Secret Service detail Sam Sulliman
  35. Special Agent, Presidential Secret Service detail Richard E. Johnsen
  36. Special Agent, Presidential Secret Service detail Ernest E. Olsson
  37. Special Agent in Charge, Vice-Presidential Secret Service detail Rufus Youngblood
  38. Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Vice-Presidential Secret Service detail Lem Johns
  39. Special Agent, Vice-Presidential Secret Service detail Jerry Kivett
  40. Special Agent, Presidential Secret Service detail Paul Landis
  41. Reporter, UPI Merriman Smith
  42. Reporter, Newsweek Charles Roberts

According to the Secret Service, the crew for the flight was as follows:

Colonel James B. Swindal pilot

Lieutenant Colonel Lewis G. “Swede” Hanson copilot

Senior Master Sergeant William J. “Joe” Chappell flight engineer

Major David D. Odor

Chief Warrant Officer John R. McLane flight engineer

Master Sergeant John C. Trimble radioman

Senior Master Sergeant Joseph C. Ayres flight steward

Master Sergeant Vernon J. “Red” Shell flight steward

Technical Sergeant R.M. McMillan

Staff Sergeant John T. Hames flight steward

Master Sergeant Wyatt A. Broom

Staff Sergeant Eulogio Gomez

Technical Sergeant Charles R. Ruberg security aide