From Red Star to Red Bull: The History of Tito's Douglas DC-6B

Updated: Feb 15

Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito was a man who no doubt enjoyed traveling in style. He had at his disposal many modes of conveyance specifically designed and suited for moving him across his country and around the world in the most comfortable way possible. There was his yacht, the 'Galeb', which famously sailed Tito all the way to England on one occasion, while there was also the Blue Train, which was Tito's fully decked-out personal locomotive transport that some described as the most opulent train in the world during the time it operated. However, all else paled in comparison when Tito, in 1958, achieved the momentous status symbol of acquiring his first personal airliner, an American-made Douglas DC-6B. But while the history of Tito and his Douglas is no doubt an intriguing one, what makes this plane's tale all the more surreal is exploring just how the plane went from flying under the banner of Yugoslavia's red star to, just 60 years later, flying under the banner of the Austrian energy-drink company "Red Bull".

In 1958, two Douglas DC-6B airliners were completed and ready for shipment in their factory in Santa Monica, California. These two planes were the very last of the DC-6 class of airliners that Douglas was to manufacture, as, after this point, the DC-6 and all its varieties were retired from production. Innovated in the years just after WWII by Douglas, the DC-6 was revolutionary for its time, being among the first commercial aircraft which dedicated itself to passenger comfort, being fully pressurized and having a climate controlled cabin. Not only was comfort for passengers maximized, the plane could fly higher, further and more economically than many other passenger planes of the era, with many regarding it as the premiere piston-engine aircraft of the 1950s. These two DC-6B varieties purchased by Yugoslavia were models which were organized specifically for passenger service, lacking the cargo door which was present on the standard DC-6.

After manufacture was completed, these two airplanes proceeded to make their way to Yugoslavia after having been purchased by its government, with the craft subsequently arriving at their final destination in October of 1958. The first of these planes were put into the service of the country's national airline JAT Airways (with 'JAT' being short for 'Jugoslovenski Aerotransport' or 'Yugoslav Air Transport') and was critical in helping to develop its global presence, as this was the very first intercontinental plane in the airline's fleet. It was given the registration YU-AFB. Meanwhile, the second of these two planes was briefly held by JAT as well (given the registration YU-AFA), but it was quickly transferred to the Yugoslav Air Force, at which point it was converted into a personal aircraft for the official business and transportation of President Josip Broz Tito. It was then given the new registration 7451. In the process converting the aircraft from a passenger liner to a "Air Force One"-style presidential plane, it was befitted with a whole host of luxury items and additions in order to raise it up to the standard of shuttling Tito and his honored guests around the world. Upon receiving access to the Douglas plane, Tito's first excursion was flying a goodwill trip to India in January of 1959 in order to meet with its Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. From India, Tito went on visit Ethiopia, Syria and Sudan, meeting with the leaders there before heading back to Yugoslavia in February.

Tito, his wife Jovanka and their entourage disembarking from the Douglas plane. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia
Tito [right] playing chess with Aleksandar Ranković [left] aboard the Douglas plane. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia
Tito standing [center] in the aisle of the cabin aboard the Douglas plane. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia

Tito went on to use this Douglas DC-6B for nearly ten years as his official airliner, with it sending him flying to locations around the world. This mode of air transport was no doubt instrumental for the international political business he did developing the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of nations starting in 1961, which had Tito flying aboard his Douglas to every corner of the globe. Indeed, Tito using the maiden-voyage of this plane to visit Nehru in India (a leader who would be key in helping him orchestrate the NAM), as well as Sudan, Syria and Ethiopia (all early NAM members), indicates how important the Douglas was for Tito's successes internationally. Not only was the Douglas plane integral in getting Tito to where he needed to be to conduct his foreign political business, but it also operated as an effective and impressive tool for flying his fellow leaders around in the most lavish of settings.

Tito standing [center] during a ceremony in India during his January 1959 visit to the country. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia
Tito disembarking from the Douglas plane in Damascus, Syria, 1959. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia

While the Douglas was continuing to run excellently through the 1960s, in 1967, Tito replaced the Douglas as his presidential air transport with a new Soviet Ilyushin Il-14, which was itself replaced two years later in 1969 with a French jetliner Sud Aviation SE 210 Caravelle. Then, in 1975, Tito gave up the Caravelle for a new American-made Boeing 727 jet aircraft, which he used until his death in 1980. It was also in 1975 that Tito took the trusty Douglas plane that had taken him on nearly 60 trips around the world (which had been utilized by secondary Yugoslav politicians over the last eight years), and gifted it to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda for his use as a personal presidential aircraft (at which point it acquired the new registration GBM 110). As an early member of the NAM and its chairperson from 1970-1973, Kaunda was reportedly a close friend of Jozip Broz Tito, so much so that Kaunda had a house built in Lusaka for when Tito visited Zambia and is documented to have dramatically wept in front of Tito's coffin during the funeral in 1980. As such, Tito gifting the plane to Kaunda makes more sense within this context. It is also important to mention that along with the 'Tito' Douglas, Kaunda also was gifted its sister plane, the other 1958 Douglas aircraft which had been used for years by JAT.

A 1977 photo of Tito and entourage exiting the new Yugoslav Boeing 727 during visit to China. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia