To find out what Air Force One is really like, don't ask the White House, ask an independent film producer from Toledo, Ohio, who spent nearly three years asking that same question.

The answers Elliott Sluhan came up with air over Channel 26 and Maryland Public Television stations at 8 tonight in an hour-long PBS special titled "Air Force One: The Planes and the Presidents."

What it tells you about the Oval Office in the sky should remove any doubts you ever had that it's the only way to go -- despite Jimmy Carter's disclaimer that "it's not a luxury palace, it's a working place."

Ronald Reagan, who calls the plane "better than any office I have," sees it as "kind of your private turf."

"It is," says Sluhan, "one of the greatest perks ever."

Sluhan makes the case in a high-flying history of American presidents as rich in yarns as it is poignant with tragedy. Most Americans remember that Air Force One was where Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and where Richard Nixon's resignation became effective as he was flying to California.

"Thirteen miles southwest of Jefferson City, Missouri, we ceased being Air Force One and changed the call sign to SAM 27000," Nixon's pilot, retired Air Force colonel Ralph Albertazzie, recalls in the film.

It was Air Force One that flew Kennedy to Berlin, where he made his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. And it was Air Force One, though flying as SAM 26000, that flew Henry Kissinger to Europe for secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese.

Gen. Vernon Walters, then U.S. military attache' at the American Embassy in Paris, tells how French President Georges Pompidou ordered his personal plane to fly Kissinger from Rhine-Main Airport in Frankfurt to Paris. Walter says the cover story "involved a woman."

" 'Tell me,' " Walters quotes a West German official as asking Pompidou's pilot later, " 'is President Pompidou's lady German?' "

Sluhan scoured presidential and military libraries for some of the old film footage and came up with a clip that shows Teddy Roosevelt, 19 months after he left office, making history with a three-minute flight in a Wright bi-plane over Kinlock Field in St. Louis.

Thirty-three years later Teddy's cousin, Franklin, became the first president to fly while in office. In January 1943, heading for a highly secret wartime rendezvous with Winston Churchill in Casablanca, Roosevelt traveled incognito on a 17,000-mile flight that involved three stopovers, one plane change and 90 hours of travel.

On the Pan American clipper's passenger manifest were two Roosevelt aides, Rear Admiral William Leahy and Harry Hopkins, and a man simply identified as "Mr. Jones." Pilot Howard Cone's widow says he quickly realized that he must be carrying President Roosevelt.

Old black-and-white newsreels of the Casablanca meeting, narrated by the late Lowell Thomas, left Sluhan wondering about the original film footage.

"Everybody assumed that because it was newsreel it was black and white," says Sluhan, "but they the Roosevelt Presidential Library tracked the original source and reported back that it was all on 16mm Kodachrome."

Roosevelt's plane, christened the "Sacred Cow" by an irreverent White House press corps, was the first in a cavalcade of "flying White Houses" that progressed from piston power to fanjets. If each plane had its mechanical idiosyncracies, so did each commander-in-chief and his wife.

Harry Truman, flying aboard his "Independence," once buzzed the White House where Bess and daughter Margaret stood on the roof watching an air show. Mamie Eisenhower was terrified of flying, even though Dwight Eisenhower was the first president who was also a qualified pilot. Jacqueline Kennedy furnished the plane with special china, crystal and other amenities. Lyndon Johnson later stripped it bare.

Sluhan says he drew a blank at first when he asked to see those items at the LBJ Museum but within 45 minutes they began wheeling out carts of it.

"The original premise," says Sluhan, "was that the LBJ Museum would have a cutaway section of what Air Force One was like, showing Johnson's big 'throne' chair and his inlaid boxes of Havana cigars."

Jimmy Stewart, the film's narrator, puts it even more vividly: "LBJ rode his big jet like a range boss."

Sluhan says his motivation to make the film was to open a new "window" on the American presidency. "I wanted it to be an American national adventure, taking the public behind the scenes to show what it's like backstairs at the flying White House."

Helping him out were people inside the White House, including presidential counselor Edwin Meese, and others who used to be, such as Albertazzie and Jerald F. ter Horst, Gerald Ford's White House press secretary, coauthors of "The Flying White House: The Story of Air Force One."

Sluhan says he found it easier setting up face-to-face interviews with former presidents Ford and Carter (Nixon begged off) than getting past Jimmy Stewart's agent. Finally, in a last-ditch move, ter Horst mentioned the idea of Stewart as narrator during Sluhan's interview with Reagan aboard Air Force One.

"White House staffers called me the next day and said 'the president thought you might like to have Jimmy's address in California,' " Sluhan recalls.

Within 24 hours after Stewart received a copy of the audio exchange between ter Horst and Reagan, the actor, who is a retired Air Force Reserve brigadier general, wrote Sluhan agreeing to do the narration.

"That," says Sluhan, "is called playing your cards at the highest level."