Honor, Duty, Country … and Flying?
Hello again! Hopefully, my prior adventures have been interesting and informational for all readers; this one, however, while not describing any daring or skillful airmanship on my part (ok, my opinion), it does provide one of the most unique experiences I have ever been part of … and flying (or rather, my aviation knowledge) came in handy as I helped out Col. Mark Tillman, one of the pilots of Air Force One.
On June 18, 2002, the beginning of one of the worst wildfires in the history of Arizona was started by an arsonist in east-central Arizona. To those who may not be familiar with the geography of Arizona, outside of the larger cities and towns within the state (i.e. Phoenix metropolitan area, Flagstaff, Tucson, and Prescott), many parts of Arizona (believe it or not) are covered by dense, forested areas. East-central Arizona is no different. And as we learned from Science Class 101, once you combine heat, oxygen, and fuel, you have conditions ripe for fire. While wildfires are (unfortunately) common that time of the year, this particular one was very devastating (when it was extinguished on July 7 it had consumed 436,000 acres).
At the time of this event, I was working at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) as the Airside Operations Superintendent. Collectively, all airport operations staff were closely monitoring what was happening in the fire affected areas and were prepared to offer any assistance to not only first responder fire crews providing air support, but any airports in the region. Needless to say, it was a very fluid and unsettling time. To put things in perspective, when an event of that magnitude are headline news on the national scene, you KNOW it is big.
As Airside Operations Superintendent, it became very common (and I don’t mean to be flippant, nor arrogant in this statement) to have frequent interactions with Air Force One’s comings and goings within the metropolitan Phoenix area. For the first few times, it is exciting, exhilarating, and hectic. Prior to any presidential visit, the Air Force One Lead team (AF-1) and Secret Service agents, swoop in and (almost) take over the place! These lead visits are typically 1-2 weeks ahead of the event itself, so you have some time to digest what is happening…..(Ah yes, our taxpayer’s money at work!). However after a few times, it becomes almost typical and (depending on your airport) frustrating because they literally can close down your airport for their entire operation.
As I stated, MOST of the time you get a 1-2 week notice. Because of the enormity of the situation and national headlines it created, we were given a 1 DAY notice. The AF-1 Team and Secret Service prepped where everything is to be in place for the next day. As the Lead AF-1 agent was leaving for the day, he asked me if I could promptly show up the next day at 0700.
I arrive for my ‘ShowTime’ at 0700, and while the entire AF-1 Team was buttoning up loose ends (i.e. the B747 would be followed by a Gulfstream to whisk the president to east central Arizona), the Lead agent turned to me with a piece of paper and simply asked: “Can you take care of this for me?” THAT was when my aviation knowledge / flying / skill kicked in (after my initial OMG moment), it was the Flight Plan for Air Force One and he wanted me to file it with the Prescott Flight Service Station!
Not having gone through this before, I was curious why the agent calmly waited by my side until I was finished (he knew what was coming). I took out my cell phone and called Prescott FSS and upon initial contact with the Briefer, I stated: “This is PHX Operations and I want to file the Flight Plan for Air Force One.” And then I realized why the agent was nearby, because after the briefer’s (almost comedic answer) “Yeah, right” the agent took the phone and said, ”That is correct sir, listen to the man and let him file the plan.” I dutifully went through the entire filing process with the briefer. When completed, and to my utter astonishment, the agent started walking away and said to me “Oh, just keep the paper, we don’t need it anymore.”
I held that sheet of paper as if I was handed the original Declaration of Independence. I could not believe it…I immediately thought to myself…”do you realize you have American/presidential/aviation history in your hands, and I bet not too many civilians get this opportunity” I cherished that flight plan not only for the aviation significance BUT for the magnitude of the events themselves.
Fast forward 13 years to July 2015. I finally got up enough courage to personally write a letter to (now) former President George W. Bush at his Library outside of Dallas and explained the situation (not that I’d expect him to remember), and asked if he would kindly sign it for me. As aviators, we are taught to always have a contingency plan, so I made a copy just in case the original never returned. To my excitement it DID return and he DID sign it. I plan to proudly display it along with pictures taken that day and the business card of the Air Force One agent who let me file the plan.
In closing, (as I stated in the beginning) this wasn’t an airmanship focused story, but one of national pride tied into the thought…” if I was NOT a pilot and knew what to do with it, it would have been just following orders and I would have ignored the significance.” Take your learning and flight training seriously, because you never know when your aviation knowledge could serve you, and your country.
Featured Image: US Air Force