Lyndon Baines Johnson was reportedly so fond of helicopters he used a helicopter seat as his desk chair in the Oval Office while president. Perhaps that love of rotor-craft came from the fact that helicopters played a pivotal role in Johnson’s political career.
The story starts in the summer of 1948. LBJ, then a Congressman from Texas, decided to run for the Senate instead. However, he made this decision just seven weeks before the primary election. Johnson’s top confidant at the time was John Connally, who was then an attorney. How, they strategized, could the relatively unknown Johnson get his face and message in front of voters throughout the enormous state? Most people lived in small, rural communities well apart from one another.
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They considered using an airplane, but Johnson thought a helicopter would offer two advantages. First, it could take him anywhere, including tiny burgs without an airstrip. Second, arriving in a helicopter would add unparalleled panache to his campaign. He needed something to grab attention, if he was going to win the primary, and this was it.
In the late 1940s, helicopters were still a new addition to the world of aircraft. They were far more dangerous than today’s models, and rarely used to transport civilian passengers. So they were a tremendous novelty. Most Americans had never seen one, though they may have seen pictures of helicopters in action on newsreels.
WALNUT CIGAR BOX PRESENTED TO JOHNSON ON A TRIP TO THE PHILIPPINES - PART OF THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION
The Johnson Senatorial campaign set off in a Bell 47. He reportedly flew and gave speeches six days a week, visiting anywhere from 13 to 30 communities. Time magazine called his plan the “first new gimmick to hit Texas politicking since the hillbilly band and the free barbecue.”
Cars with bullhorns on the roof blared their way through each town shortly before Johnson landed, encouraging a crowd to gather. Lyndon Johnson knew people were there to see the new flying machine, not him. To keep them around long enough to hear his political message, he supposedly used another gimmick. He’d say, “My good pilot Joe tells me it’ll be too dangerous if I take off with him because we wouldn’t have enough power to clear those 30,000-volt high-tension wires over there. He’s going to have to take off alone. And it’s going to be a might tight. I just hope and pray he’ll be able to make it.”
LBJ'S CAMPAIGN HELICOPTER - THE JOHNSON'S BELL HELICOPTER STOCK MADE THEM A FORTUNE DURING THE VIETNAM WAR
Then he’d give his speech while his audience watched the helicopter. It worked. It took only one week for LBJ to pull within 10 points of his rival. Everyone wanted in on the action, including political leaders in communities across Texas, who begged to have the “Johnson City Windmill” visit their town.
Years later, as President, Johnson routinely traveled by helicopter, especially to and from his ranch in Texas.
Historians say LBJ got a lot more from helicopters than campaign appeal. It was the Vietnam War – an event inextricably linked with President Johnson -- that fueled development of the helicopter in general and the design of multiple variations to serve different specific purposes. That sealed the fortune of Bell Helicopters. Close friends with the Bell family from the beginning, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson both made a fortune from their Bell stock.
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