My ‘Air Force One’ Story: The Day Reagan Died

A special contribution in honor of President’s Day

I’ve received a handful of these high-level presidential advance calls in my tour of duty during President George W. Bush’s first term in office. The calls normally came from Air Force One, as it was airborne and flying towards me–standing on an airport’s tarmac denoting the parking spot reserved for the world’s most important airplane.  That’s the life of an Air Force One presidential advance agent…

 ***

June 5, 2004.

A warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in Palmdale, California, found me going through mail and paying bills at home. In the background, my ears tuned in to the sad and shocking announcement from the 24/7 television talking heads – former President Ronald Wilson Reagan had died at the age of 93.

I glanced up every few seconds to see canned video of the 40th President of the United States, highlighting his 8-year tenure occupying our nation’s highest elected office. File footage of ‘The Gipper’, as he crisply saluted his HMX-1 Marine One presidential detail on the South Lawn of the White House, flooded my TV screen on a constant loop. Sound bites from classic Reagan speeches in the past were sandwiched between personal stories told by former aides and friends of the former First Family. Many of the Hollywood actor-turned Commander-in-Chief quotes chimed on for the next hour as historians and media members attempted to place Reagan’s two-terms as president into proper perspective.

No contemporary president was better, or more eloquent, at describing a scene with a deft and cocksure delivery than Ronald Reagan. He also possessed the personal traits that always separate the great leaders from the just ordinary or good ones. Reagan could inspire others to think like a best-selling author with words alone–as he did along the beaches of Normandy in 1984, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Allies’ D-Day invasion. Or heal a nation, as evidenced by Reagan’s sorrowful remembrance following the Challenger space shuttle disaster.   But perhaps the Great Communicator’s most compelling trait involved motivating others into action.

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SAM 28000 prepares to land at Andrews AFB, MD, carrying the body of former President Reagan. (Photo by U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Richard D. Stephens, June 9, 2004)

Flipping channels, nearly all the television broadcasts keyed in on President Reagan’s 1987 watershed moment near the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin; the exact location where the Cold War begin to thaw and our forceful, pragmatic and, yet, always positive U.S. president shouted “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But now, President Reagan was dead. And my world was about to turn upside down—and very quickly.

**

An hour after I learned of President Reagan’s death, my cell phone rang with a call from the White House—or more specifically, the White House Military Office inside the West Wing. On the other end of the call was a familiar voice.

I’ve received a handful of these high-level presidential advance calls in my tour of duty during President George W. Bush’s first term in office. The priority calls normally came from Air Force One, as it was airborne and flying towards me–standing on an airport’s tarmac denoting the parking spot reserved for the world’s most important airplane.  That’s the life of an Air Force One presidential advance agent…always out in front of the President of the United States (POTUS) and “the jet” (the nickname for Air Force One).

As Air Force One advance, our two-person team of presidential agents would head out to some small corner in the world, marveling at different look each location would take as the days neared for the president’s arrival. We wore civilian business suits, alongside the advance team sent by the White House’s West Wing and Communications agency, as well as the U.S. Secret Service. The entire advance team would arrive almost unnoticed someplace, all working side-by-side for one vital, common goal: to make sure every trip by President George W. Bush was safe and secure.

I answered my cell immediately. “Are you at home?” my friend in Washington DC asked. Yes, I answered suspiciously.  Then my world turned upside down: “How soon can you be at the Point Mugu Navy base?”  Using some quick mental math and dividing that number by 2 (because of adrenaline I sensed overcoming me), I answered about 3 hours. “OK”, he noted before continuing…”We (and by “we” he meant the President of the United States) need you to be there in 3 hours”. I nodded to only myself and repeated the order. By now, I was already in my master bedroom closet. Thankfully, I always had my ‘go-bag’ ready with 2 weeks of business suits, papers, pens and checklists.

Once he had me on the hook, he gave me the bigger news; “You’re going to handle Air Force One and (long pause)…everything else for President Reagan’s funeral events there for a couple of days”. Holy s***, I thought. “We’ll get folks there as soon as possible from the White House and State to assist. But, in the meantime, President Reagan’s funeral events in California are your responsibility”.  Gulp. Roger, I replied with a dry mouth and hung up.

Just as this news started to sink in, I realized my 3 kids needed to be placed with friends.  And right now!  I urgently made 3 phone calls to 3 different families–each with children that were best friends with my kids. All agreed without hesitation and said the kids could stay as long as required.  This was the first of many instances coming over the next 24-48 hours, in which I sensed the enormity of the situation and everyone’s willingness to do whatever they could to help me–and our nation in mourning.  I left each of the families with the White House switchboard phone number to get ahold of me in case of an emergency. I then scribbled a note and handed it to the families authorizing them to OK medical attention to my children in the event of hospitalization. Then I was off, exactly one hour after the call from Washington DC.

As I drove west towards Naval Air Station Point Mugu and the coast of California I went through all my mental notes and checklists. First, don’t **** up. Second, don’t **** up on TV in front of 32 million viewers. My cell phone immediately began to ring and that continued for the next 6 hours, or until 2 a.m. struck our nation’s capital. Between the Pentagon and others I was constantly talking to someone on my razor flip phone.  A presidential historian called wanting to make sure certain protocols would take place for our 40th President.

My government cell was lighting up as quickly as the sun was setting on the Pacific coast. Mrs. Reagan’s personal military aide/escort–an Army 2-star General–repeatedly called me over the next few days to relay her personal wishes and desires.  Every one of them I treated as though they were coming from President Reagan himself…and would be honored and fulfilled down to the letter.

When I arrived at the Navy base lodging facility the receptionist handed me the phone over the counter, advising me there was an urgent call to take. It was the base’s second-in-command (the commanding officer was away off post).  The gentleman was very nervous about the worldwide attention coming into his base, his workspace. I had to tell him that I’ve done this many times before (not entirely correct…it was my first and only presidential funeral) and more help was on the way soon. I needed him to remain calm or else my job would get more difficult. He finished the conversation by telling me “My base is yours.  Whatever you need, you get.”  Period. The best course of action I could have hoped for.  Thanks, Sir, I replied. Then it was back to my ringing cell phone and writing down meticulous notes.

My partner and others arrived within the next 48 hours–along with a floodgate of other White House and military personnel.   My AF-1 advance partner and I determined what runway Air Force One (call sign “Special Air Mission (SAM) 28000”) would land on and the taxiways it would follow until reached its final parking spot…a “T” placed on the tarmac in duct tape for the VC-25‘s B747 nose gear to stop on. This was all to mark Air Force One’s final mission to pick-up our 40th President of the United States.

Former US First Lady Nancy Reagan (C), e

Photo by Getty Images.

The honor I had to be a part of this historic journey and help pay tribute to President Reagan remains etched in my memory for two reasons. First, this Air Force One trip from California to Washington DC and back again to California, was distinct from every other “normal” presidential trip I’d ever been a part of—by a magnitude of about tenfold. Secondly, traveling with the President of the United States you fly into cities and towns populated by some Democrats, Republicans and Independents, regardless of its location or state. That’s just the price of a democratic government and free world.  But on this historic mission for a fallen president, a gentleman more well-liked with each passing year, there were only Americans to be seen. No politics or demonstrations.  Only cheers, waving flags and patriotic Americans. Every minute I was doing my advance job and coordinating events, people wanted to know how they could help or do more—all without being asked. That’s never happened before on a previous trip. The country was saying goodbye to a true American and wanted to be a part of it.

Reagan mourners

Photo by Lawrence Journal-World.

I’m honored to have played a part in the funeral of President Ronald Reagan, still the largest in United States history since President John F. Kennedy’s in 1963.

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President Ronald Reagan.

Patrick King is a movie reviewer and freelance writer.  You can read more from him at his REEL BRIEF – Movie Reviews for Busy People website at www.reelbrief.com. You may email him at reelbriefmoviereviews@mail.com).

© 2015, Patrick. All rights reserved.



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