The first U.S. president to travel via aircraft was Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was in 1943 at the height of World War II when he flew on a Boeing 314 Flying Boat to the Casablanca Conference in Morocco.
That three-leg flight covered 5,500 miles. In 1944, the Presidential Pilot Office was founded as part of the White House Military Office, at the direction of Roosevelt.
After Roosevelt's death in April 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman became president. He signed the legislation that created the U.S. Air Force, the National Security Act of 1947. He commissioned a modified C-118 Liftmaster, calling it the Independence after his Missouri hometown. It was given a distinctive exterior, as its nose was painted like the head of a bald eagle. Several propellor-driven planes followed.
In 1962 John F. Kennedy flew in a modified Boeing 707 and became the first President to fly in a jet specifically built for presidential use.
Aircraft technology has come a long way since then and today the two presidential planes are Boeing 747-200B series aircraft, or VC-25A, as the Air Force has designated them. These planes are called Air Force One.
In the short history of Air Force One, there have only been sixteen pilots. This is the story of No. 10.
Retired Col. Robert D. "Danny" Barr grew up in Atlanta, Texas, and graduated as an Atlanta Rabbit in 1964. He received a bachelor's degree in business administration from Texas A&M University in 1968 and and his master's in management and supervision from Central Michigan University in 1977. While at A&M, he was a member of the Corps of Cadets Squadron 11 and served as Guidon Bearer. After marrying his college sweetheart, Elaine, Barr commissioned into the U.S. Air Force and attended undergraduate pilot training at Laredo Air Force Base in Texas.
During four years of flying the C-141A out of Norton Air Force Base in Southern California, almost exclusively to Vietnam, he carried Bob Hope on two USO tours in 1970 and 1972. Barr flew three Operation Homecoming trips to Hanoi, Vietnam, repatriating POWs. After one year in Ubon, Thailand, he was assigned to the 89th Military Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland where he remained for 23 years of his 29-year Air Force career.
"In February and March of '73 I was part of the Operation Homecoming Mission," he recalled. "We flew into Hanoi three times to pick them (American prisoners of war) up. I can still see some of their faces. They applauded when we took off and some of them came to the cockpit to thank us. We took them to the Philippines for debriefing before they were brought home."
After that very important mission, Barr was stationed in Ubon, Thailand until transferring to the 89th Military Air Lift Wing and Andrews Air Force Base in 1974. It was there he met Col. Robert Ruddick, deputy pilot of Air Force One for President Jimmy Carter. When Col. Lester McClelland retired, Ruddick was promoted to commander and hired Barr.
"Each commander gets to hire his own crew," Barr explained. "Ruddick hired me in May 1980, and in 1984 I became a deputy pilot under him until he retired when Ronald Reagan left office; I became the 10th commander in 1989 when George W. Bush was elected."
In order to become an Air Force One pilot, Barr had to meet with President Ronald Reagan. "I did receive his blessing," he said.
Being the commander of Air Force One entails more than being just a pilot.
"You've got four pilots and about 75 or 80 navigation and support crew; then about 100 or so more in mechanical crews."
The flight schedules for the president come from the director of White House Military Office, and the commander has plenty of notice to get prepared.
"We had vacation time, and plenty of crew, and you had your 'on duty' time where you remained available. Everything came from the White House and went through the Pentagon," Barr said. "But I was in charge and given all I needed to perform my job — which was, primarily, to take the president where he wants to go and get him there safe and on time."
One of Barr's first assignments was President Carter's campaign for re-election tour in 1980. The leg of that trip through Texas was described by Barr's mother as "The Holy Coincidence."
"I had been recently hired on the crew, and the flight plan took us to Beaumont, Waco and Texarkana," Barr explained. "My brother Johnny lived in Beaumont and was able to take a tour of the plane while we were there. My little sister Julie was in college in Waco and she got to visit me on the plane. The next stop was Texarkana, where the rest of my family, and friends, came to see me. Hence, my mom said it was the 'Holy coincidence' that I was able to see all of my family on the same trip."
Another coincidence of that trip was then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton being part of the welcoming committee for President Carter at the Texarkana Regional Airport. Neither Clinton or Barr could foresee that years later Barr would be flying President Clinton on Air Force One.
When it became time to replace the Boeing 707s, Barr served as lead representative for the Air Force and White House Military Office for the acquisition of the current Air Force One Boeing 747-200 aircraft, 28000, and 29000. Barr has the distinction of being the last pilot of the 707s and the first pilot of the 747s.
"I worked on the new 747 plane project for five years," he said. "We had wanted to be able to have Reagan fly on the new plane before leaving office, but we just didn't have the time we needed to make that happen. So Bush was the first to fly on it in 1990."
Barr has not only flown four presidents and first families, but also Queen Elizabeth II, King Hussein of Jordan, and many more dignitaries. He flew Nancy Reagan to England for the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana. Years later, he gave a tour of Air Force One to their children, the young princes Harry and William.
Throughout his 17 years on Air Force One, he has been one of few people that were close enough to touch history being made with each president.
He was there when Reagan demanded that Gorbachev "tear down that wall." He was there when George W. Bush spent Thanksgiving with the troops during Operation Desert Shield. He was there for every monumental moment a president stood on foreign soil during his tenure.
"That trip to Saudi Arabia with Bush was the longest flight I ever flew," Barr recounted. "It was 14 hours and 45 minutes long."
The trip Barr recalls as needing the most precaution was a trip Bush took to Colombia in February 1990 for a one-day anti-drug summit with the presidents of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.
"There was much concern the drug cartels would carry out a threat against the president, so we had to rethink some of our security measures," Barr said. "In order to lesson the threat, I wanted to leave very early in the morning from the airport there - but you never want to interfere with the president's sleep. So I asked if he would sleep in the hangar on the plane while there, and he agreed. We took off at 4 a.m. and he never woke."
During brief appearances of the president, the Air Force One crew remains on the plane and waits. For overnight trips, the crew is allowed to leave the plane with security. "The Secret Service is responsible for the president; the Air Force is responsible for the plane and a security detail never leaves it."
During his time as pilot for President Bush, the two became close — perhaps stemming from the president's own military flying experiences.
"Most pilots and presidents become very close — there's a natural association there," Barr said. "He and I stayed in touch. I visited him often at his library and I attended his funeral last year. He was a great man."
The last four years of Barr's leadership on Air Force One was spent with President Clinton during his first term.
"One of the first missions for Clinton was a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We landed in Idaho Falls, and he was transported over to there," Barr said. "While I was on standby, he called and asked if I would give a tour of the plane to Harrison Ford and director Wolfgang Peterson. They were working on a movie about Air Force One."
Barr recalls Ford asking where the escape pod was.
"I told them there were no escape pods or parachutes, and Harrison didn't know whether to believe me or not because I tend to smile a lot," he said. "I got a copy of the script later and I wrote a note telling them they took way too many liberties with the manuscript. But I did ask them on the tour what the name of the pilot was going to be. Well, in the script he was Charles; but for the movie they changed it to 'Danny' which was pretty neat."
While a member of the Air Force One crew, the Barrs lived in Fairfax, Virginia, where they raised their two sons, Rob and John. When Barr was close to Air Force mandatory retirement age, he resigned from the high profile career after 17 years - the longest of any Air Force One pilot. He then took a private piloting job for U.S. Ambassador Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia.
His final career job was for Discount Tire Corp. out of Scottsdale, Arizona, until his official retirement in 2012. "That was a much easier job than Air Force One," he said, chuckling.
These days, Barr spends his time at home, at the Traditions Country Club in Bryan, Texas, where he "plays a lot of golf and attends a lot of Aggie ball games."
Elaine passed away in 2010, but he spends time with his sons and six grandchildren, and gets back home to Atlanta from time to time - the last visit being two years ago. He was named an Atlanta High School Distinguished Alumni and in 2018 was inducted into the Texas A&M Corp of Cadets Hall of Honor.
When thinking of how his childhood here affected his life, Barr said "you know, successful people come from everywhere, but I think Atlanta has a little something extra there."