Arrow-right Camera
News >  Nation/World

Plane’s History Criminal Air Force Two Once Was Illegal Gun-Runner

Vice President Al Gore loves jet-setting in “Air Force Two” but knows nothing of its sordid past.

Dan Quayle flew the Boeing 707, also clueless about its shady history.

And Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the dark about her wings to China, Mongolia and South America.

Today, the gleaming aircraft is emblazoned with the words “United States of America” and the American flag. Its interior is state-of-the-art: about 30 phones, color televisions, videocassette recorders, stereo systems, an electric typewriter, a Xerox machine.

But before it was seized, impounded and turned over to the Air Force, it was a gun-running cargo plane bound for South Africa with an illegal shipment of 1,146 M-16 automatic rifles, 259 pistols and 100 M203 grenade launchers.

For the past 10 years, rumors have floated about the plane’s origin. Lore said that it was a drug-running plane. When a reporter inquired several weeks ago, officials at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland began digging and eventually tracked down the plane’s past.

Many Washington heavyweights have flown this notorious 707, according to Lt. Neil Nipper, a spokesman for Andrews.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide flew it to Haiti in October 1994 when Aristide was restored to power. Christopher took it to Syria and Jordan in July 1994. It carried Defense Secretary William Perry to Croatia, Switzerland and Germany in September 1994. It recently got back from shuttling Gore to Japan and was a support plane to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

GOP strategist Bill Kristol, who was Quayle’s chief of staff, joked that the plane’s glory days may be past.

“This plane was once used for exciting smuggling and running of weapons and grenade launchers,” he said. “And now it is reduced to flying vice presidents around the country to raise money for political candidates and to dedicate federal buildings.”

Kristol also wished he had had some of the old cargo.

“We could have used some of those weapons during the Quayle vice presidency against the press and the Democrats on Capitol Hill,” he said wistfully.

According to court records, the plane was seized before it could deliver the weapons to the South African company that ordered them.

On May 12, 1981, after taperecorded conversations about a phony Sudanese destination and $1.2 million in wire transfers, undercover U.S. Customs agents seized the plane at Houston Intercontinental Airport, according to court records.

The Customs agents, who had been tipped off about the deal, posed as drivers of the truck that carried the weapons to Houston. Two British men, who Customs agents said were representatives of an international arms-trading company, were arrested while they inspected the weapons. They eventually pleaded guilty.

The government sought to keep the plane in a common civil legal procedure known as forfeiture, which permits the seizure of items used in connection with an attempt to export munitions illegally.

After the federal civil forfeiture case was resolved in the government’s favor in 1985, the plane was turned over to the Air Force for good.

The Air Force says it got a great deal: The plane did not cost a dime, although it has cost a pretty penny to refurbish.

At that time, a Boeing 707 would have been worth about $1.75 million, said Lindquist, an appraiser for AVMARK Inc., an aviation consulting firm in Arlington, Va. Today, it is valued at $1.6 million.

After the government won its court battle, the 707 became part of the prestigious 89th Military Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, a unit of 48 planes used for ferrying bigwigs of Congress, the Cabinet and other high flyers, such as the president and vice president.

Whatever plane Gore uses is called Air Force Two. Although this 707 is the primary vice presidential plane, two others he sometimes uses also have interesting histories: One carried President John F. Kennedy to Dallas and saw Lyndon B. Johnson sworn in on the return flight; another took former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon to Anwar Sadat’s funeral.

“It once carried guns,” Neel Lattimore, Hillary Clinton’s spokesman, said when told about the plane’s past. “Now it is flown by top guns for our country’s big guns.”