USA –-Two Air Force Ones cruised the smoke-filled skies of Colorado last week President Obamas sleek 747 jumbo jet, and an ancient aerial workhorse with a surprising résumé.
As Obama flew into Colorado Springs last Friday to inspect the devastation and commiserate with residents whose homes had burned to the ground, a lumbering 58-year-old twin-engine propjet dumped 1,750 imperial gallons of red-tinged flame retardant from treetop level onto wildfires in the western reaches of the state.
Ironically, the tanker plane loaned to the U.S. government by Canada to help fight the fierce forest fires once sported the most famous radio call sign of any aircraft in the world Air Force One. Now it goes by the inelegant moniker of Tanker 475.
For a single day 40 years ago, the cozy Convair 580, then a U.S. Air Force VC-131H, was the Presidential aircraft, flown by President Richard Richard Nixon on a campaign trip to West Virginia and Kentucky in October 1972.
It also was the VIP plane of choice for Vice President Gerald R. Ford, who used it scores of times over nine months until he succeeded Nixon as President in August 1974. Fords Air Force Two was so slow that reporters and Secret Service agents dubbed it Slingshot Airlines.
But its 265-knot cruising speed is perfect for attacking forest fires, which is why the Province of Saskatchewan bought it in 2006 and spent two years on a complete overhaul.
Since the revamped tanker reentered service in 2008, the plane has logged over 360 flight hours over several Canadian provinces as well as Alaska.
Since June 15, Tanker 475 has been on loan to the U.S. Forest Service, which is battling one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in the history of the West.
It has flown more than 50 missions in five states from its temporary home base at Grand Junction, Colo. Nearly all those sorties have targeted seven different blazes ravaging Colorado.
These days, the planes silver-and-blue Air Force livery has been replaced by a green-and-white pattern. The interior was totally stripped to reduce weight, and a belly tank was added.
From the outside, however, it seems unchanged from its years as a mainstay of the Presidential fleet at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
But Canadian officials proudly point out that the onetime Air Force One is still in public service after more than 250,000 hours and seven decades in the air.
In fact, they predict their workhorse propjet will be flying another 20 years.
The plane is in fine shape and once again serving the USA, said Steve Roberts, who runs the wildfire management branch of the Saskatchewan government.