The “interview” for the 89th Military Airlift Wing seemed fairly straightforward. It wasn’t so much about how well I could fly an airplane, rather it seemed to be more about my demeanor and whether they thought I had the personality traits that would allow me to quickly establish rapport with the various VIPs I would come in contact with. The organization assumed you had the necessary flying skills, or you wouldn’t have gotten this far in the process. Another subjective element that I came to understand later was the ability to make decisions and to do so rapidly. Because of the unit’s mission of flying U.S. and foreign dignitaries, there was absolutely no room for mistakes. I remember someone commenting that you were allowed one mistake, unfortunately, that one mistake was also the one that got you a sayonara plaque or pewter mug at your going away party. Mistakes were the other guy’s problem. No room for them in this organization.
Joining the 89th Military Airlift Wing
It turned out that I wasn’t the only one going through the interview process. I seem to remember there were about 10 or 12 of us, mostly pilots, but a couple of navigators as well. In any case, at the end of our day of interviews and showing us around the organization, we were asked to attend a cocktail party at the Officer’s Club (O’Club). All the interviewees were in attendance, along with the 89th MAW (Military Airlift Wing) staff and the commanders of the two squadrons; the 98th and 99th. Wing staff personnel outnumbered us almost three to one. Some good soul among the staff that I had met earlier that day, gave me a helpful hint. He said, “Tonight’s cocktail party is very much a part of the interview process, so be forewarned. There will be plenty of booze available.” I got the message loud and clear – don’t drink too much and keep the conversation on a positive note. Not everyone got the memo, and I watched as a couple of folks had more to drink than they should have. Needless to say, they didn’t make the cut!
I successfully maneuvered through the interview process and received orders to report to the 99th Military Airlift Squadron (MAS) in June 1975. I would be flying SAMs (Special Air Missions) in the VC-140 Jetstar, a four-engine, eight-passenger corporate jet with a range of around 2,000 miles.
Home of ‘AIR FORCE ONE’
At the time, the 89th MAW had two operational flying squadrons; the 99th MAS flying the Lockheed VC-140 Jetstar and the McDonnel-Douglas VC-9 Nightingale, and the 98th MAS flying the VC-137 Boeing Stratoliner and the VC-135 Boeing Stratolifter long-range aircraft. All the aircraft assigned to the 89th MAW were carried on the books of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government, while the aircrews flying these aircraft were administratively assigned to the Military Airlift Command. The office of the vice chief of staff of the USAF controlled our operational missions. The White House Office of Military Affairs controlled the pecking order. In other words, who was high enough up in “rank” to request and be assigned an aircraft.
The president and vice president came with the call signs, Air Force One, and Air Force Two, respectively. This meant that any airplane in the fleet that the president stepped foot on became Air Force One. On the other hand, if he climbed aboard an Army, Navy, or Marine aircraft then they would lay claim to the call sign for their branch; for example, Marine One is the helicopter operated by the U.S. Marine Corp. When the president is onboard, the call sign is “Marine One.”
The 89th MAW had a special internal faction known as the Presidential Pilots Office. The men and women that populated this unit were selected based on both tenure in the organization and their outstanding performance. This highly competent cadre was then, and is now, tasked with handling everything to do with getting the president of the United States and his entourage from point A to point B and back again safely.
So, you can imagine, being a part of the 89th MAW was quite unique. No other job in the military could compare to it. One moment you could be scheduled to fly a general on a day-long round trip from Andrews AFB to Ft. Bragg, NC, and back, or fly a foreign dignitary on a week-long tour of the United States, or if you were in the 98th MAS, flying VC-135’s, you might be tasked to take White House support staff to China during a presidential visit. Our missions were varied and always interesting.
I had the opportunity to fly both Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Senator Barry Goldwater several times during my tenure with the 99th MAS. Both squadrons had “wining and dining” down to a fine science. Our crews, especially the flight stewards, knew the exact likes and dislikes of our VIP passengers, what they ate, what they didn’t like, what they drank, you name it, and we had an extensive dossier on all of them.
‘Vat Is Dat A****** Pilot Doing?’
One afternoon, I was scheduled to fly Kissinger from Andrew’s AFB to New York. He was supposed to speak at a session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, or some such UN event. Henry wasn’t the most punctual individual, but the nature of his job probably had a lot to do with that. My co-pilot, flight mechanic, and flight steward had run our checklists and were strapped in our seats ready to go; problem was, no Henry! Thirty minutes went by, an hour, and then an hour and a half; then finally I got a call, “The secretary is five minutes out.”
His limo pulls up and he jumps out of his car and climbs into the Jetstar. The minute his foot hit the bottom step I had the number one engine cranking. We were airborne in under 10 minutes. The problem popped up when I was cleared for takeoff, got airborne, and was told to contact departure control for further clearance. I dialed in the new frequency and checked in. I was told to proceed to a departure fix about 10 miles from Andrews AFB and hold until further notice. I told departure control that I had a “Code 2” (high-level VIP onboard). I anticipated what was coming next and instructed the flight engineer to contact the 89th MAW Command Post and request a patch into the Department of State (DOS) command center. I began a right-hand turn to enter the holding pattern as the DOS duty officer came on. I gave him a short version of my situation: I needed a priority clearance and I needed it now!
About the same time this is happening, I hear an accented yell coming from the passenger cabin, saying, “Vat is dat a****** pilot doing?” It’s Henry himself hurling expletives at me, his humble servant. The flight steward pokes his head into the cockpit and repeats again, in case I hadn’t heard it the first time, “The secretary of State is inquiring about what the asshole pilots are doing. He has a speech to give in 45 minutes.” He immediately realized that I had entered that holding pattern and now had decided that it was my fault that he was going to be even later than he already was. After completing one turn in that holding pattern the clearance came through and it was off to New York LaGuardia Airport.
‘Son, Your Days of Good Living Are Over, Democrats Are in Office Now’
I’m certain I wasn’t the only pilot to feel the wrath of Secretary Kissinger or some of the other VIPs we flew around. Right after Jimmy Carter was elected president in November 1976, I was scheduled to fill the co-pilot slot on a mission to take Vice President (elect) Walter Mondale to Puerto Rico for the Christmas holidays. He climbed aboard and took his seat. As the flight steward leaned forward to ask him if he would like something to drink before takeoff, Mondale glanced up to see a souvenir tie pin hanging on a young staff sergeant’s tie. Unfortunately, this tie pin was a souvenir given to him by someone on Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s (Mondale’s predecessor) staff. Mondale looks the flight steward in the eye and says, “Son, your days of good living are over, the Democrats are in office now.” His glib comment wasn’t taken well when word got back to the other squadron members, especially considering that this young staff sergeant had a wife and two children and was barely making it from payday to payday. Pay and benefits were so bad for enlisted military members with families that someone said a lot of the families had to go on food stamps. I guess Walter forgot for a moment that humility is one of the traits required of leaders.
Contrast Secretary Kissinger or Walter Mondale with this next guy: When it came to class, Senator Barry Goldwater was a person that commanded everyone’s respect. He was gracious to everyone he met. I had the opportunity to fly him on several occasions from Washington, DC to his home in Scottsdale, AZ. The very first time he stepped aboard my VC-130 Jetstar, he stepped up and introduced himself. If that weren’t enough, he knew each of our names; I assumed that his staff had provided it to him before he got on the plane. I mean, can you think of many people in powerful positions that know the first names of the individuals carrying their bags or being tasked to transport them around.
To give you another point of calibration on Goldwater, all you had to do was listen in on one of the conversations he would have with his wife of many years. This is why we would listen in: if a dignitary wanted a phone patch from the VC-140 then the pilot or flight mechanic would set it up. One of the problems was that I had to monitor the conversation(s) to make sure the line was working satisfactorily and that when the call was finished, to terminate the link. All the VIPs were aware of the “open” nature of the patched phone calls that they made, so they fully understood that what they said was monitored at various points, including at the cockpit. When Senator Goldwater would be talking to his wife, it was like listening to two young lovebirds chirping back and forth to one another. Hearing a loving, kind conversation between two people just makes you want to smile! Again, compare the type of call that the senator would make to his wife with calls some other VIPs might make with ladies other than their wives, to arrange the time and date of a tryst. They didn’t seem to mind that their calls were “open” for others to hear. It seems that in some people, not all, power has an inverse relationship to moral boundaries.
We got out of Andrews late one Friday afternoon and with Senator Goldwater onboard headed to the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. I had my crew booked into a hotel in the Scottsdale area, and as we headed west the Senator came from the passenger area and sat down in the empty flight mechanic’s seat situated between my co-pilot and me. “You all have a place to stay once you get to Phoenix?” he asked. I told him that we did. “Well, cancel your reservation, you can all stay at my house.”
Well, hanging out with our VIPs was not in the book, and I knew that staying at his home would have been frowned upon, so I politely declined. He insisted, and he and I went back and forth for a bit. He finally gave up and we proceeded on. When we showed up at the airplane on Sunday afternoon to bring him back to Washington, DC, he comes on board with an entire Mexican dinner for all of us. He said, “Well you wouldn’t spend the weekend at my house, so I had my housekeeper, Lucia, fix us dinner to eat on the way back. Now, folks, that’s a guy you have no problem working for.
‘I Just Set a Speed Record Getting From La Guardia to Andrews AFB’
Safety was paramount when flying dignitaries, but there was another metric that that crews in the 89th MAW were completely focused on. The “on-time arrival.” Understand that when a VIP is heading somewhere, there is usually an entourage waiting for them at their destination. Those arrayed and waiting for the person you’re delivering to them usually have some level of celebrity, as well. If your VIP is scheduled to arrive at 1200 noon, it is incumbent upon you to have the door open at the destination at precisely 1200 noon. I’m not talking about 1159 or 1201, I mean 1200 noon on the dot. If it looked like we were going to be early, a mortal sin in VIP flying, we would slow the plane down or change our route of flight to add on the necessary minutes. Pilots flying in the 89th MAW were absolute masters in the manipulation of time as it pertained to arrivals. Now take the other side, and say your VIP was late, à la Kissinger, then it was “balls to the wall” and cut corners anywhere possible. Just make up as much time as possible.
In 1978, I was to pick up Prime Minister Pinto of Portugal, so I pre-positioned my VC-140 at La Guardia LGA. My scheduled pick-up time was 9:00 am at LGA. We were scheduled for an “Honor’s Arrival” at Andrews AFB (ADW) at 10:00 am on a Friday morning An “Honor’s Arrival” is a formal affair with a band, flag bearers, and a collection of receiving statesmen. Unfortunately, the prime minister was late in arriving and didn’t get to my plane until 9:15 am. In those days, the flight to Andrews was 40 minutes at best. The prime minister and his entourage buckled up and I received clearance to taxi. Another problem: I’m in the takeoff queue with about 10 airplanes ahead of me; another added delay. When my turn came, I got off the ground and never pulled the throttles back. I was doing 350 knots below 10,000 feet, which I knew was an ATC violation. They told me to slow down to 250 knots, gave me a new frequency, and told me to contact the en-route controller. I kept climbing and asked for a change in altitude to something above 10,000 feet, but below 18,000 feet (FL 180) so that I could keep up my airspeed, and possibly get a vector direct to Andrews. I leveled at around 14,000 feet and was given clearance direct to the outer marker for runway 1 Left.
I decided that when I got a visual on Andrews AFB, I would cancel my Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) clearance and enter the airport traffic pattern for a visual landing on runway 1 Left. If I can touch down in the first couple of hundred feet, I could make the first turn off to the left and with a fast taxi, pull up right in front of the receiving VIP contingent. A great plan, but not so fast! My flight steward came forward as I was starting my descent and said, “Sir, the prime minister, and his wife are very nauseous and about to puke.” Whoops! In my haste to meet or get close to that on-time arrival, it never dawned on me that we were in a lot of turbulence, which only got worse because of my trying to imitate Dale Earnhardt at the Indianapolis 500. I throttled back and slowed down. The turbulence quickly diminished along with my traveling companions’ queasiness. I touched down, taxied in, and stopped on my spot. It was 10:05 am. I think I just set a speed record getting from La Guardia to Andrews AFB. I was amazed that I was only a few minutes behind our scheduled arrival time, even admitting that it was a bumpy ride.
Lt. Col. Mike Leonard is a retired Air Force officer and highly experienced global business executive. He was a United States Air Force command pilot with a military career spanning 20 years, including two combat tours to Vietnam in 1965-1966, and 1969-1970. Mike spent four years flying the VC-140B Special Air Mission aircraft during his time with the 89th Military Airlift Wing, the “Home of Air Force One.”
His combat decorations include three Distinguished Flying Crosses, nine Air Medals, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. What you are about to read is one of those just-so stories of military service that illustrate how the serious business of military aviation can also be very funny at times.
Mike Leonard’s book “An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot: From the Battlefield of Vietnam and Beyond” is available from SOFREP-Books here.