Retired Air Force One crewmembers share stories

Panel discussion part of Living History Series

At the recent Former Air Force One Aircrew and Maintenance Reunion, a common theme prevailed among the retirees. They expressed honor serving the presidents, the vast opportunities their various positions presented and the overall inclusivity and camaraderie they experienced.

The schedule of events for March 31-April 2 included a panel discussion April 1 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Museum’s Presidential Gallery. The Air Force Museum Foundation presented “Flying the Presidents: Air Force One Crew Event” as part of its Living History Series.

The Air Force One Crew speakers offered colorful and humorous stories about flying with the presidents, first ladies and foreign dignitaries, but there were also solemn recaps of global events, such as Chernobyl and 9/11, and secret missions.

Pilots, navigators, communications specialists, stewards and flight attendants, maintainers, support personnel and security work in concert to achieve a singular mission: provide fast, safe and reliable worldwide air transportation for the president of the United States.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Kim Johnson, who organized the reunion, said she grew up in a “welfare family” in Montgomery, Louisiana, but saw a chance to better her life by joining the Air Force in March 1968. She served three separate tours with Air Force One: first with Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford; a second tour during the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations; and the third with George H.W. Bush and at the beginning of the Bill Clinton administration.

“I couldn’t have been more honored to serve with all of you,” Johnson told the group.

Credit: Ty Greenlees

Credit: Ty Greenlees

There were many “firsts” among the panel speakers, including:

· Retired Senior Master Sgt. Wanda Joell, who was born in Bermuda and relocated with her family to New York in 1969. Joell made history as the first black woman selected to serve on the presidential aircrew. She remained there until her retirement in 2010.

· Retired Chief Master Sgt. Timothy Kerwin, who is the longest-tenured Air Force One flight attendant, serving from December 1981 to December 2000. He served three presidents: Reagan, H.W. Bush and Clinton. Kerwin retired with 29 years of service and more than 7,800 flight hours. He fondly remembers his job as “kind of like being a cruise director.”

· Retired Master Sgt. Cynthia Sterrett, who entered the Air Force in May 1978 and arrived at Special Air Mission, Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, in 1986. She was chosen as the Air Force’s first female communications systems operator.

· Retired Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Schulz, who hails from Bismarck, North Dakota. She was selected as the first female flight attendant in the history of Air Force One, where she served until October 1994. Originally a maintainer, she cross-trained into the paramedical field. Recruiters selected Schulz for special duty as a flight attendant, which took her to SAM at Andrews AFB in November 1982.

Although their careers were brimming with memorable moments, the speakers said other situations proved to be treacherous and tense.

Col. Mark Tillman, for instance, was presidential pilot for President George W. Bush. Two significant events during his tenure were flying on 9/11 and sneaking Bush into Baghdad.

And Lt. Col. George Pavelko Jr., a presidential navigator from 2000-2011, was mission planner on 9/11. He also took part in five secret missions into Iraq and Afghanistan.

As one might expect, traveling the world with presidents, vice presidents, secretaries of state and other top officials lends itself to some marvelous storytelling.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. John Haigh said he kept copious notes during his time as a flight attendant on Air Force One from September 1979 to October 1992 and as chief of the Flight Attendant Section. After retiring from the Air Force, he wrote and published a book titled “Air Force One: An Honor, Privilege and Pleasure to Serve.”

Haigh said “my wildest dream come true” when he and his pitching partner challenged President George H.W. Bush in 1989 to a horseshoe competition on the south lawn of the White House. The competition, he recalled, was fierce yet friendly.

In fact, Bush wrote a glowing review of Haigh’s book: “John Haigh, with his attention to detail and his genuine concern for people, set the standard for other Chief Stewards of Air Force One to follow. His wonderful book will be a valuable guide for his successors; and for everyone else, it will be a fascinating read.”

Likewise, retired Master Sgt. Jeffrey Elder, an Air Force One flight attendant from 1994 to 2006, wrote a book recounting his various experiences flying with the two Bush presidents and Clinton, as well as Vice Presidents Dick Cheney, Al Gore and Dan Quayle. When the flight attendant career field was adopted in the Air Force, Elder was one of four individuals assigned as a subject-matter expert to author the first-ever specialty knowledge test.

Another published author among the group includes retired Chief Master Sgt. Howard Franklin. His book, “Yes Sir, Mr. President,” reflects on his time as a flight attendant on the Air Force One crew from 1976 to 1994.

“What you see on this stage and in the audience is a family,” Franklin said during his speech. “We leaned on each other when we needed to.”

Other panel speakers included:

· Retired Senior Master Sgt. Danny Bowen, who was assigned to SAM at Andrews AFB in April 1977. He was selected for the Air Force One Maintenance Unit in 1981, where he worked for 13 years before retiring.

· Retired Chief Master Sgt. Richard Holley Jr., who was selected to serve as a communications systems operator on the Air Force One crew in September 1985. He flew all the trips to Russia and Israel during Reagan’s administration.

· Retired Senior Master Sgt. David Rexrode, who was selected to the Air Force One Maintenance Unit in 1973, where he served until his retirement in 1990.

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