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Air force one and a half

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Air force one and a half

June 14
16:34 2016

Published in February 2015 issue

By John A. Marshall

One of the most pleasant chores that befell me while I was a check airman in the New York Chief Pilot’s office in the 707 days was being assigned to the very limited cadre of airmen who flew White House Press Charters. These unusual charters were planned and assigned through the White House Travel Office, and parceled out — like packages on Christmas morning — to several different airlines. Allocation was supposed to be even-handed and impartial, but the international trips, plus most of the extended domestic ones that required greater capacity, were almost always given to Pan American.

One primary reason for which we were habitual beneficiaries was the fact that the crews who flew these trips were chosen from a limited pool of carefully selected airmen. They were always the same, few in number, and taken from the managerial ranks so that there would never be any question of running afoul of the ubiquitous union, with its strict rules regarding duty and flight time limits. There were days in which union scheduling reps would have thrown up their hands in shock and horror at the hours we were keeping.

The captains were limited to two: a highly experienced, grizzled check airman who had been flying these trips for a number of years and knew all the ropes and unique procedures associated with White House flying, and his understudy, Your Faithful Correspondent. The flight attendants were handpicked from a list of about twenty of the best the airline had to offer, all of them based in Washington and all White House veterans. The White House liked the arrangement because it simplified their security vetting, and the Press Corps liked it because the cabin crews were generally all familiar faces who knew from experience just how everyone liked their steaks and what sort of libations to have waiting at the front door after a long day.

Captains assigned to White House charters were permitted to choose their own cockpit crews, and their numbers were normally counted among the ranks of the airline’s flight instructors and check flight engineers.

During presidential campaigns, a single day’s flying might entail five or six stops, with legs sometimes as short as twenty minutes — not exactly the mission the 707’s designers had had in mind for it. The pattern for each leg was always the same: the president and his party arrived at the foot of the steps leading to the front entry door of Air Force One (a 707 in those days) and, as the presidential shoe hit the bottom step, the engines began to turn. The press pool chosen to travel on the presidential jet hurried to the aft steps and clambered aboard, while the rest of the White House Press Corps boarded the press airplane (there always seems to be some confusion when talking about presidential travel. The term Air Force One applies to any Air Force aircraft in which the president is a passenger, be it a 747 or a Learjet. The gigantic, green helicopters that ferry the president to and from the South Lawn of the White House are always designated Marine One whenever he is aboard. When Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1975, President Ford graciously offered the use of Air Force One to carry Nixon and his family back to California. Nixon was technically president until high noon; that hour found the 707 carrying the Nixon family high over the plains of Kansas. At the stroke of twelve, its call sign ceased to be Air Force One and reverted to the more pedestrian Air Force 27000).

Air Force One only ever waited for one man. Once he was aboard and the door closed, the big, blue-and-white aircraft with “United States of America” emblazoned on the side taxied immediately. The lone stragglers were the photo crew assigned to film the presidential departure. It was an exercise with macabre overtones; should disaster befall the presidential jet, an oficial photographic record would remain. Once Air Force One’s gear folded into the wheel wells, the film crew boarded the press airplane and, with engines already running, the door was hastily closed and we taxied out quickly, off to follow the president.

On nearly every leg, we performed an intricate exchange with Air Force One. The press airplane always landed first in order to cover the arrival. Photo opportunities, “photo ops” in journalese, were the meat and potatoes of the traveling press, and a clip for the evening news was always the hoped-for prize. A certain amount of “slop” was built into each flight plan, permitting us to catch up with and pass the president. Each leg was briefed with the Air Force One crew, and a special, discrete radio frequency enabled us to monitor the progress of the interchange.


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The press airplane customarily leveled off just below the blue-and- white 707, accelerating to the barber pole, or about Mach .88, depending on the altitude and length of the flight. Air traffic control treated us as an entry, creating a large block of airspace around the two flights, giving us ample room to maneuver as we pleased. On one flight from Kansas City to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Air Force One was running behind schedule (one of the rare occasions when the operation failed to run to the minute) due to President Carter’s insistence on an unscheduled stop at a barbecue joint on the way to the airport. Air Force One was a dwindling speck flying northward as we lifted off. We stayed low and fast, passing our quarry as we neared Chicago. Center cleared us direct to the airport at 3,000 feet. Overhead the field, the tower declared, “Clipper, you are cleared visual approach to the runway of your choice and you are cleared to land… please advise.” How often can one claim such priority at O’Hare Airport? I wondered later how long it took to unsort the tangle of air traffic that must have resulted from our unusual arrival. It was heady stuff.

Since the operation was a chartered one, we felt that we had a great deal of leeway in the enforcement of some of the regulations that were obviously intended for other times, other places. The cockpit door remained open for the entire flight, and there was no shortage of takers for the two cockpit jump seats, particularly for the takeoff and landing. In flight, there was a steady procession of visitors, some dropping in out of mere curiosity, others who stayed literally for hours with a steady tattoo of questions about the airplane, route, and the scenery below. On one memorable, sparkling July afternoon, we were all en route to an economic summit in the Far East, with an intermediate stop in Anchorage. It was a dazzler of a day and, as we began our letdown inbound from Northway toward Big Lake, where we would make a lazy visual turn into Elmendorf Air Force Base, I had a hard time keeping my eyes off the spectacular scenery. The visibility was as unlimited as it can only be in Alaska, with Mount McKinley (or Denali, as the natives call it) stark against the sky, almost near enough to touch. We made a wide swing over Cook Inlet, and I turned my attention to the landing. An unusual commotion behind me caught my attention, and I turned briefly to look over my shoulder. To my astonishment, I saw that my cockpit was chock-a-block with sight-seers. There must have been ten people crammed elbow to elbow into the tiny space, peering out of the side windows, some with cameras furiously clicking away, others gazing excitedly at the marvelous panorama spread out before them. One or two casually carried half-empty cocktail glasses from which they coolly sipped. I turned back. The runway was five hundred feet below, scarcely two miles ahead. In as nonchalant a voice as I could muster, I said, “OK, everybody. Grab something and hang on!” I nursed the 707 onto the runway with barely a whisper, and breathed a sigh of relief. Just another day at the office.

I never ceased to marvel at the precision with which the presidential crew managed to hit its ETA’s. The published daily itinerary printed arrival times to the minute, and it was a rare arrival (barbecued ribs notwithstanding) that did not see the nose wheel come to rest on the spot within a second or two of straight up on the scheduled time. One day, I asked the crew just how they did it. “We time it from the outer marker,” was the answer. “We know to within a second or two how long it will take us to reach the blocks from the marker, so we plan our arrival at the marker accordingly. Of course, it helps that we don’t ever have to wait for traffic.”

Advance men orchestrated the carefully choreographed arrivals. No sooner had the press airplane come to a halt and the journalists scurried off that a telephone was brought aboard, trailing the longest phone cord in the Western world. (It was before the days of cellular phones and satellite communications.) The instrument was placed on the jump seat behind the captain and became the primary communications backup to the awesome array aboard the presidential airplane. It was a direct line to the White House switchboard, where the waiting operators could connect with any telephone on the planet (I once called my mother from my seat in the airplane. That Renaissance lady, who still marveled at the wonders of the portable radio, was dumb-struck at the modern technology. It took a good deal of convincing before she believed that she was at one end of a phone call from a 707, sitting on the ground or not).

At the end of one particularly exhausting, multi-legged day, we were finally headed back to Washington after the last campaign stop in New Hampshire. There was no intricate interchange involved, no need to cover an arrival; just a quick trip home at the end of a long day. As we taxied out, Claire, our wonderful British purser, popped her head into the cockpit to inquire about the flight time home. “We’ve got a steak dinner planned,” she said. “I hope we can get it all done in time.” I replied, “Well, we’ve got just a little over an hour’s air time,” Her face fell. “Then we’ll just have to hustle,” she said.

After takeoff, we were given a direct clearance to Andrews Air Force Base, without the usual side trips and do-si-dos that usually accompany any flight into the busy New York–Philadelphia– Washington corridor. It soon became apparent that our expedited handling, plus some unforecasted tailwinds, were going to have us landing well ahead of schedule. I called Claire to give her the news. A moment later, she burst into the cockpit in a highly agitated state, wild hair flying from her normally carefully-coiffed head. “John, you can’t do this to me!” she exclaimed. “We have trays out all over the cabin, and we’re just now starting the wine around!”

“Claire, just tell me what you feel is more important: an early landing or dinner?” I said. “Dinner!” she replied without hesitation. “You got it,” I said. “I’ll give you another hour.” I picked up the mike and made what was probably the most unusual request that Washington Center had ever received. Could they please place us in a holding pattern somewhere out of the way for about 45 minutes while our passengers finished dinner? I could swear I heard chortles in the background as center granted our request. We made lazy circles off the Maryland coast in the calm, smooth air of a moonlit night and, after getting the nod from the back end, we made a gentle letdown into Andrews. Our well-fed and liquefied passengers disembarked, tired but content, and none the wiser.

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John Marshall

John Marshall

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