November 19, 2013


It happened 50 years ago this month: perhaps one of the most wrenching flights in the history of aviation.

Air Force One

Jim Swindal was the pilot of a Boeing 707 with the tail number 26000. The Secret Service called it “Angel,” but most of the world knew it simply as Air Force One. It was John F. Kennedy’s flagship aircraft, loaded with elegance and $2 million worth of high-tech hardware. It featured offices equipped with electric typewriters, and carried subscriptions to 15 magazines and five daily newspapers. Its presidential bedroom, catering to times when the chief executive had to cross many time zones all at once, included a special bed with a mattress designed for Kennedy’s bad back.

Colonel Jim Swindal had already logged some 75,000 miles on Air Force One in a little more than a year since its commissioning. He was dedicated and loyal, both to the presidency and to this thirty-fifth president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Earlier in 1963 he had flown his hero to Germany for the president’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

National Tragedy

Now, on a crushing Friday afternoon, Swindal had to take off from Dallas
for the worst two-hour-and-eighteen-minute flight of his life. The last hour
on the ground had been pure agony for Swindal and everybody else: a hot, perspiring delay while Lyndon Johnson waited for Texas judge Sarah Hughes to drive out to the airport and swear in the new chief executive. There in the tail area of Air Force One was a large coffin, a Britannia model, solid bronze. Kennedy’s bullet-riddled remains were in it. Kennedy loyalists and Johnson staffers filled the plane, sick to the soul as they grappled with painful tragedy and awkward transition, as one administration ended and the other one began, in the sticky humidity of the 707 with the disconnected air-conditioning. 

William Manchester’s standout book, The Death of a President, helps us focus: Who should participate? Who should be in the picture as Lyndon Johnson is sworn in? LBJ had already expressed in a general announcement to the whole plane: “If anybody wants to join in in the swearing-in ceremony, I would be happy and proud to have you.” But Swindal and many others were simply too grief-stricken to join in. Their president was lying in the box.

Jackie Kennedy was one of the few who did participate. “Three years in the White House,” Manchester states, “had given [Jackie] an abiding respect for her husband’s office. She understood the symbols of authority, the need for some semblance of national majesty after the disaster, and so she came.” In the famous black-and-white photo by Cecil Stoughton of Johnson being sworn in, the widow of John Kennedy is standing right next to him.*

What a flight that’s going to be!


Then at 2:47 in the afternoon, CST, Air Force One lifted off from Love Field. Just three hours and nine minutes earlier the plane had touched down for a victorious parade. Spirits had been high; celebration and sunshine and confetti were in the air. Now nothing but darkness and tears.

Air Force One is the most secure plane in the world. Every trip is exceptionally guarded in terms of its flight path. The plane zigs and zags, taking unorthodox routes for utmost secrecy. On the ground Secret Service agents track its every move; people stationed in unmarked cars along the route visually confirm its passage overhead. And this flight carried the dead body of the former president and also the new president. There was no backup, no vice vice president. And 26000 had no military escort for this trip. On the ground below, the Pentagon put Air Force bases on standby alert, with pilots “belted in and ready to go.”

Captain Swindal had to fly that plane carrying the dead body of his hero. It was November, with early sundowns. Flying west to east to Washington, D.C., Air Force One was quickly immersed in shadows and then in darkness that made the gloom more unbearable. “It was the sickest plane I’ve ever been on,” Mac Kilduff, a Kennedy advisor, told people later. But no one seemed to feel it as did the captain. Manchester writes: “No aircraft commander had ever been charged with so grave a responsibility, yet he wondered whether he could make it to Andrews. He was near collapse. ‘It became,’ in his words, ‘a struggle to continue.’ ”

Swindal had clearance to take his beloved president home at 29,000 feet, a pretty standard level even today. Flights often climb up to these levels to avoid turbulence. But with all that ache in his heart, and with the defiant skyline of Dallas just behind him, with all the hatred of people, the cities, and angry civilizations just below him, spreading out in all directions, Swindal wished he could take his beloved president away from it all. He wanted to lift him higher than he’d ever been before, remove him from the pain of earth, the danger of bullets and snipers and angry posters and cruel editorials. And so he did. In all his life, Kennedy had never been so far above earth before; the 707 roared toward the stars, climbing at the incredible rate of 4,000 feet per minute. Swindal didn’t level off until they were at 41,000 feet, approximately eight miles above the scarred world and its miserable Friday.


Fifty years later, our world is just as horribly scarred and miserable. It still harbors assassins and hurt of every kind. Hate is as cheap as the Internet. Leaders fall to bullets or scandals. Terrorists obliterate our tallest buildings and slaughter our most innocent infants, loved ones, and friends. We keep visiting more hospitals, attending more funerals, and standing in more cemeteries than we ever wanted to. We need a Swindal flight.

Except that what God’s Word promises is infinitely better. Not Dallas to Washington, D.C., not a Boeing 707, not two hours and eighteen minutes of flight, and not even Swindal’s breath-taking 41,000 feet. But a trip that lifts us free from every last trace of this world’s ugliness and hate, a trip beyond the stars. Jesus promises us, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. . . . I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2, 3, KJV).

Paul knew much about assassinations; in fact, his own life ended tragically. But in 1 Thessalonians he writes about how we’ll soon be lifted up, caught up in the clouds. And then we’ll head out for a celestial journey that takes us far beyond the clouds, to a city that’s the capital of the universe. To a city that’s home. It’s a long, long way away, and frankly, we want it to be a long, long way away from earth and sin and death and the endless rows of tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery. God’s angels will gather His children together from the four winds of heaven and lift us up to meet our Lord in the air (see Mark 13:27). “And so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).

Shout “Hallelujah,” friend of mine. What a flight that’s going to be!

* Quotations from William Manchester, The Death of a President (London: Pan Books, 1967).