Pan Am Series – Part XXXVI: Press Charters
13 May 2014 2 Comments
White House Press Charters
One of the perks as the “World’s Most Experienced Airline” was being the preferred airline of the White House Press Office. This involved carriage of the White House press corps that accompanied the President of the United States flying in Air Force One. Although other airlines were periodically given this assignment, it was Pan American who got the lions share of the White House Press Charters, largely because of its international route system and ability to offer greater capacity.
“Air Force One” is the official air traffic control call sign of any United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. The call sign was created in 1953 after an incident during which a flight carrying President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the same airspace as a commercial airline flight using the same call sign. Recent examples of this aircraft include the VC-137 (a customized Boeing 707), pictured here arriving at Andrews Air Force Base with President Jimmy Carter on board (below, left) and; on the Boeing VC-25 (a customized Boeing 747-200) shown here arriving at MacDill Air Force with with President George H. W. Bush on board (below, right).
The first U.S. President ever to fly in a commercial airliner while in office was Franklin D. Roosevelt, when, on 11 January 1943, he traveled on Pan American’s Dixie Clipper to the Casablanca conference.
However, there developed a concern over relying on commercial airlines to transport the president, hatching the idea of designating a specific military aircraft to transport the President. The first aircraft to be converted for presidential use was a C-54 Skymaster, called the Sacred Cow (pictured below, left). This aircraft carried Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in 1945 and was later used by President Harry S. Truman for another two years. A VC-118, a modified DC-6, called The Independence (below, middle) was also used by Truman. The VC-121E, a Super Constellation, called Columbine was used by President Dwight D. Eisenhower during his administration, and was later replaced in October 1962 by the VC-137C during the administration of President John F. Kennedy.
Retired Pan American Captain John Marshall had the opportunity to fly the White House Press Charters during Pan American’s 707 days. He shared his experiences in a column he wrote for Airways Magazine, excerpted below:
“One of the very 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 international trips, plus most of the extended domestic ones that required greater capacity, were almost always given to Pan American.
“One primary reason we were a habitual beneficiary was the fact that the crews that flew these trips were selected 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 when union scheduling reps would have thrown up their hands in shocked horror at the hours we were keeping.
“The captains were limited to two, a long-time 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. The flight attendants were picked 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 the 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 his steak and what sort of libation 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 number 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 its designers had in mind for the 707. The pattern for each was 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 clamored aboard, while the rest of the White House Press Corps boarded the press airplane.
“Air Force One waited for only 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 official photographic record would remain. When Air Force One’s gear folded into the wheel wells the film crew boarded, 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 travelling 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.
“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). 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.
“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 didn’t see the nose wheel come to rest on the spot within a second or two of straight up on the scheduled time. I asked the crew one day 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 than 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.
“After 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. Claire, our wonderful British purser, popped her head into the cockpit as we taxied out 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.’
“‘Well, we’ve got just a little over an hour’s air time,’ I replied.
“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-do’s that usually accompany any flight into the busy New York-Philadelphia-Washington corridor. It soon became apparent that our expedited handling, plus some unforecast 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 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.”
Bill Frisbie, another retired Pan American Captain, flew the 747’s. His experiences are included in a story he contributed to Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People. Below are excerpts:
“I first began flying White House charters in 1984 when President Reagan made a trip to China. The White House knew that I had flown all the proving and initial flights to Beijing, Shanghai and Canton starting in 1978 as the bamboo curtain began to fall, with the journey of the Boston Pops to Shanghai. The White House wanted the benefit of my China experience as China’s air traffic system was unbelievably backward, mostly ADF approaches, altitude measured in meters not feet, wind speed in meters per second and although the charters carried five crew members, they were all pilots who had no knowledge of navigation in the area. Also, in those days, the de-icing of a 747 was accomplished by opening the over wing emergency exits and having the Chinese beat the ice off the wings with bamboo sticks.
“A Presidential trip overseas is an enormous undertaking. The Presidential staff does not want the public to know the size and cost of these trips. Advanced teams go to each stopover with operations, security and support people and special vehicles – all bullet proof – are flown to each city to await the arrival of Air Force One.
“Many aircraft are involved. In addition to Air Force One, there is usually a backup Air Force One in case of a mechanical problem. Then there is the White House press plane, other passenger jets including 707’s, Gulfstream’s, Lear Jets and countless cargo and rescue aircraft.
“On the White House press aircraft we carried cabinet staff members, security personnel and secret service members. We even took along our own customs and immigration staff so we could clear US government formalities onboard and also carried medical personnel.
* * *
“The longest duty day I remember was returning from Asia on the occasion of Emperor Hirohito’s memorial services. We left Tokyo before dawn for Seoul, South Korea and stayed at the airport all day during the President’s meetings. We then left Seoul around dusk for Washington and while en route we saw a sunrise and another sunset before landing in Andrews well before dark – and then we had to ferry the aircraft back to JFK.
* * *
“All of our trips were exciting as we were witnesses to history. I especially remember the 1987 economic summit which was held in Venice– what a beautiful and romantic place. We also included a side trip to Rome. Then we left for Berlin where President Reagan delivered an address at the Brandenburg Gate in front of the Berlin Wall exhorting President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union to ‘tear down that wall’. The flight to Berlin was a challenge as we landed at Templehof Airport that was used in the Berlin airlift following World War II. We had to fly between the apartment buildings on landing and had only 4,300 feet of runway with no glide path aids. The runway was actually longer than 4,300 feet but was only 143 feet wide so the 747 could only use the first 4,300 feet to permit a turn-around.
“In December of 1988, shortly before leaving office, President Reagan invited our crew to meet with him and have lunch at the White House in appreciation for the support the White House received from Pan Am. This was a great thrill and remains to this day one of my greatest memories from my flying days.”
From the Flight Attendants’ view, Nancy Scully worked on the White House Press Charters for thirteen years during the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. She wrote about her experiences in her story “White House Press Tales” also in Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People. Excerpts of her story appear below:
“Many times people asked me how I came to be chosen for the prestigious opportunity to accompany the White House on the Press Charters. I believe I came to the attention of Pan American World Airways due to my performance during the hijacking of Flight 64 in 1980. It was the beginning of the most exciting travel that anyone could experience as a flight crew member.
“Several months after the hijacking, I received a phone call from Crew Scheduling asking me if I would be interested in working a White House Press Charter that would accompany President Carter to the Sugar Bowl to view his beloved Georgia Bulldogs. I accepted the offer and following the trip, I was asked to join the Press Charters on future trips. The Press Charters carried the reporters and press staff who were not part of the pool that traveled on Air Force One. The White House Travel Office would arrange each trip and work with the advance teams to assure travel comfort, gourmet meals and what turned out to be memorable trips as history was being written. We made the trips fun and the press and staff several times claimed that they would rather travel on the Pan Am plane rather than Air Force One because they had more fun and better food. On foreign trips we would dress in a costume that represented the place we had visited. We had hula skirts over our uniforms, babushkas, or an apron with pictures of sushi from Japan. The Press was greeted each morning of departure with orange juice, Dunkin Donuts and a steaming cup of coffee. Some of the reporters’ children nicknamed us the Donut Ladies when they traveled with us for long summer visits to the Western White House in Santa Barbara. Many times we would prepare eggs Benedict and or lamb chops for the short morning trip between Andrews and NYC. This was a hurried service. One time we were rushing so quickly that the plate of eggs, bacon and hash browns flew off my tray and onto a White House Correspondent’s lap as she tried to read her newspaper in the front row of the 727.
“The charter crew and the press were like family. This was a time when the Press Plane was the reporters’ time to be away from all their company assignments; a place to relax before the hurried and sleepless days ahead of them as a member of the traveling press.
“As the crew, we were witnesses to history as it was being made. For thirteen years, we were at the economic summits in Venice and England and at the meetings of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev in Moscow and Reykjavik, negotiating the end of the Cold War and limiting nuclear armament. We were invited to climb into the huge transport cargo planes that carried the armored limos in which the Russian President rode. It was like being in a Tom Clancy novel. The airplane nose had a two story window of small panes of glass. One could imagine a gunner sitting there as approaching a target.
* * *
“There were many occasions when we were invited to the White House Press Office if we were in town before or during a trip. We watched the election returns and would often be in the Rose Garden for a visiting dignitary’s meeting with the President. On one particularly cloudy afternoon, we were in the Rose Garden when President Reagan presented Mother Teresa with the Medal of Freedom. As President Reagan towered over this tiny woman she became larger than life. All of the sudden, the sun appeared and her presence displayed a magnitude of brightness. She stated her unworthiness in accepting the Medal and we stood in awe of the moment.
* * *
“I was blessed and most thankful to all at Pan American World Airways and the White House Travel Office to have been an eye witness to world history.”
The excerpts above of Bill Frisbie and Nancy Scully are from two of 71 stories in Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.
Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People
Also available in a Kindle Edition
For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline.
For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation