On President’s Day Weekend, I was born in our Nation’s Capital on a cold Sunday, February morning in 1972. My mother worked at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society and Dad was still a young cop with the United States Capitol Police. Mom shared that she almost went into labor with me in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol. Most come from across the country to take their seat in Congress but very few can’t help but wonder if one was born to work there 🙂
In 1975, my parents moved when I was three years old just slightly south to Waldorf, Maryland. We grew up in a nice, middle class neighborhood in Charles County and lived only nine miles away from Andrews AFB. As far back as I can recall the world’s most recognized airplane would literally fly over my home. For years, it was one of the Boeing 707’s that was the president’s personal plane known as “Air Force One.” Air Force pilots would often practice “touch and go” without the president onboard repeatedly with precision to eliminate mistakes when accompanying the Commander in Chief. When transporting the leader of the free world mistakes are not an option.
One of those planes (707) from the presidential fleet flew the late President John Kennedy in a casket from Dallas that transferred power from him in his death to LBJ remaining in life to take the pressure of the presidency before it even left the runway. Our political system is far from perfect but still the best in the world. The older 707 fleet also flew President Richard Nixon to China and Henry Kissinger around the globe to promote peace. President Ronald Reagan not only loved it but LIVED to fly on it. He had such a respect for the office that he never once walked into the Oval Office without wearing a suit and tie.
First Lady Jackie Kennedy helped design the gorgeous color scheme with a white and baby blue livery affixed with the black UNITED STATES OF AMERICA letters embossed in black down the fuselage. Regardless, in the air or parked on the runway if that plane doesn’t give you goosebumps you are either dead or not American! After being in the White House for eight years it was obvious that the planes were not only racking up miles but age and something had to be done. President Ronald Reagan got the appropriations from Congress to purchase brand new twin Boeing 747’s and took just shy of three years to make. Ironically, by the time they were assembled, delivered and ready to fly “The Gipper” was no longer in office or power. His Vice President (George Herbert Walker Bush) was now President and was the first to benefit from that massive upgrade.
Every single president loves the luxury, comfort and status that comes from flying on “Air Force One.” Every President when asked to describe their times aboard that plane all note with a smile, “they miss it terribly.” President Jimmy Carter in an interview confessed that he was so excited to board that plane for the first time that he accidentally left his own mother in Plains, GA en route to catch the plane provided by President Gerald Ford after becoming President-elect and they had to make a U-Turn and go back to pick her up! It is literally considered “The Flying White House” and one can run the country from 40,000 feet and could actually make a phone call to men on the moon to talk if needed. AMAZING! Presidents’ of both parties realize the political power that comes from not only being on the plane but near it. Presidential aides often set the podium on the runway with the plane parked on the tarmac as a backdrop adding enormous clout to the president and speech. Crowds love it and the plane embodies both patriotism and the spirit of our great country. Outside the White House, nothing is more presidential than “Air Force One.”
Often as a child, when I would play wiffle ball in the yard or touch football in the street it was frequent that both the 707 and eventually 747 would fly directly over the roof of my house. Sometimes we would pause our game and waive hoping that the flight crew may see us and truth be told I often said a silent prayer, “Lord, maybe one day we can get on that plane.” My father retired as Acting Assistant Chief of the United States Capitol Police and was number two out of the now 2,000 sworn police officers at his department in Washington, D.C. Dad protected SIX United States Presidents and my three goals early on was to enter politics, protect the President or proclaim Truth around the globe. By my 35th birthday, I was blessed to work 17 years on Capitol Hill in various capacities and during my four years as a Special Assistant to my Congressman in the House Leadership I was blessed to fly several times on the new Boeing 757 known as “AIR FORCE TWO.”
As an adult, I never forgot that private prayer and daydream as a child and teenager and fortunately God didn’t forget either. In the past, I had boarded several of the older 707 but still never had the chance to board that elusive Boeing 747 known as SAM 28000 or 29000 on the tail of that majestic presidential plane. UNTIL RECENTLY!! On December 18, 2013, my wife, Ruth and thanks to our dear friends, Terry and Cindy and the fine crew at 89th Airlift at Andrews Air Force Base rolled out the RED CARPET and gave us the VIP tour. No joke, as we walked through the maximum security fence and heavily guarded hanger that houses both the 747’s I got nervous. Not because of the clearance but the reality that one dream was coming true. I felt like a kid at Christmas (after all it was exactly a week before CHRISTmas) and the door opened to go outside and there it was all alone on the runway.
As we approached it the excitment intensified and in the air they look pretty small but standing next to a 747 is GIGANTIC! I am 6’1 and ironically the wheels on that were almost my height. The plane looked like a flying flag in the wind and less than 48 hours that same plane would bearing the tail numbers 29000 would transport President Obama and the First Family on their vacation to Hawaii.
Our Air Force guide graciously escorted us up the stairs and after a quarter of century praying the BIG DAY was now here and I had tears in the corner of my eyes. I had been close to the 747 before and while working for the Congressman (1996-2000) I also served as his full-time driver and would ocassionally drive him to Andrews AFB for meeetings and/or board one of the military or presidential aircrafts as an invited guest. We did have some fun perks working on Capitol Hill and one day I was invited to a speech by President Bill Clinton on the runway with the Joint Chief of Staff. Ironically, his name was General Hugh Shelton and when they saw my name they placed me right up front! Looking back, I think they thought we were related 🙂 We do have a few connections but not that many!
After the president’s remarks, I was able to shake hands with him again and took a picture with Secretary of Defense William S Cohen and his lovely wife, Janet sandwiched between them and Senator and former astronaut John Glenn. That was quite a picture! I felt like Forrest Gump!! During my political career, I was blessed to work with members of both sides of the aisle. After that picture, we stood silently on the flight line and watch the president climb the stairs, pivot around, smile like the shining sun and waive to the crowd and dissapeared. The door shut and within minutes that jumbo jet raced down the runway. It was exciting to say the least regardless of your political preference. It’s good to be an American!
That was a decade and a half ago but now (December 18, 2013) I was closer than ever and took NOTHING for granted. Once we were inside, I was given “booties” to put on my shoes to not trample any dirt on the plush carpet but out of respect to the plane and occupant I volunteered to take my shoes off and walked in my socks for the two hour tour. It was everything I visualized in my head and its hard to believe that the 747 are already two decades old. The irony is they both look BRAND NEW! #GodBlessAmerica
We were chaperoned to the rear of the plane first and met some of the chefs who were already planning for that flight to Hawaii. We entered the Press Cabin and could see and sit in the seats where some of my White House Press Correspondents colleagues relax. While speaking across America as both a motivational and inspirational speaker I have the honor to attend ocassionally White House Daily Press Briefings in the West Wing. Hopefully, one day it would be an honor to accompany the president and travel on that plane (747). Every chair on “Air Force One” is FIRST CLASS with leather chairs with plenty of leg room that swivel for comfort. A large flat screen is strategically placed on the wall and you get to pick the movie of your choice. HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD!
From there, we went to another corridor and saw where some of the Air Force security sit and the rule on the plane when on flight is where you are assigned to sit one can always go backwards but not forward unless invited. The rule of thumb is how much access you have to the president is the same proximity you have to him on the flight. Chief of staff and high ranking aides have more liberty on the plane but the rest are respectfully designated towards the rear but keep in mind it is an honor just to be on board. Both the Air Force and United States Secret Service provide security on the trips and the agents follow him at all times and the Air Force special ops guard the interior and exterior of the plane at all times.
As almost everyone knows, many of the seats were ripped out to accomodate conferences rooms and auxilary space. The wood used on the conference table was second to none and they still have the same batch of trees that should a table ever need to be replaced they can repair it on the spot to keep continuity. The food is personally prepared and cooked individually for each invited guest and when I flew on the 757 (that are actually newer but smaller than the 747) it was AMAZING! Everything has the presidential seal on it from napkins, menu to in flight entertainment guide. Yes, I was invited to take them home and the M&M’s with the presidential seal are my favorite but I never opened them.
After sitting in two conferences rooms that have the capability after 9-11 to talk directly to The White House with a massive 50 inch flat screen on the wall we were ushered to the medical suite of the plane. Within 60 seconds it can be transformed into a flying hospital and the president’s blood is stored in a refridgerator at all times for emergency. Eventually we were escorted down a long, narrow hallway that was so nice could have resembled a hotel with lamps and all. We turned the corner and we were in the President’s personal office up front that is called the “Oval” even on the plane. It had a gorgeous, curved leather couch with mahogony wood and the ever present presidential seal was affixed next to his desk on the wall next to a window. Our guide graciously invited us to each sit in the president’s chair. One by one, each of them respectfully sat for a moment in the seat of the world’s most powerful person. When it was my turn, I politely declined. Honestly, it was just an honor to be on the plane – I didn’t need to overstep my bounds.
We walked out and immediately to the left is the main door where the president climbs up that five story plane and enters with the whole world watching. Once again, the presidential seal was predominately displayed on the door. We walked down a small hallway to the left of the plane and we came to a large bathroom on the right and “Air Force One” is the only plane in the entire military that has a full shower. On long flights that is another luxury. We were invited into the nose of the plane and now found ourselves in the president’s personal bedroom equipped with two beds on each side that could be joined together and both had matching comforters with you guessed it – PRESIDENTIAL SEAL. The slides cover the windows with a push of a button could be closed instantly for privacy and comfort. They had already had his compartment ready to roll for their vacation that was ticking down.
Departing his private suite, we were asked if we wanted to meet some of the pilots? Without missing a beat, we said “SURE” and walked upstairs inside the double decker and went inside in the cockpit. It was surreal to be there inside the world’s most recognized airplane. Everyone was asked to jump in and grab a chair and sit in the pilot’s seat. Once again, I smiled to see my wife and friends act like respectful kids in a candy store but I politely watched and cheered them on. When you have been around it and know the price and enormous responsibility that comes with it sometimes less is more.
We exchanged pleasantries and headed back down and our two hour tour was now over. What an honor it was to get on that plane and I will leave you with a few leadership lessons. 1) President Reagan had the vision to purchase the planes but fact is he never got to benefit from them personally. TRUE LEADERSHIP is leaving others and the environment better than you arrived. 2) What you make happpen for others God will do for you! President Reagan never flew on it alive but President George W Bush on learning of President Reagan’s passing ordered that the plane would not only be a flying White House or hospital but now hearse to retreive his body. It was my honor to pay my respects at President Reagan’s funeral and after the State Funeral in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol, President Ronald Reagan’s American flag drapped coffin was placed delicately and respectfully on the 747 and they flew his remains to his presidential library at Simi Valley, CA. Ruth and I have been there and boarded his old 707 at the library too and aboard the one that is now at Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH. 3) Never stop dreaming because the moment you do one begins to exist and no longer live.
Thank God for a child-like faith and God above who still answers prayers. Keep dreaming because I am living proof, “Your one day could be TODAY!” #WelcomeAboardAirForceOne