They flew side by side with presidents and first ladies, kings and queens, ambassadors and vice presidents and generals, admirals and astronauts around the globe.
They are witnesses to history, with stories no one else knows.
“I flew with kings and queens and and all the chiefs of state and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” said Ronnie M. Gaskill, 85.
Gaskill is among the some 90 pilots, navigators and flight stewards who plan to be at today’s opening of the $40.8 million expansion at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The resident of Sun City West, Ariz., served in the presidential airlift fleet from the era of propeller-powered planes to jets, and served four presidents — from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Richard M. Nixon.
“When you’re young, you don’t really think about this,” he said.
Among the 10 aircraft that flew 11 presidents, one stands as among the most iconic and famous, and the one flight stewards remember the most. It’s also the centerpiece in the fleet of planes that, because of the museum’s expansion, is now more accessible to the public.
With the tail code Special Air Mission 26000, the blue and white Boeing 707 served eight presidents, from President John F. Kennedy to President Bill Clinton.
Flight steward John T. Hames said he flew with presidents Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford.
But the day he remembers most — the day many Americans remember most — is Nov. 22, 1963. That’s when Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson was sworn in his successor on Air Force One at Love Field. A back-up plane brought other Air Force flight crew members to Dallas, too.
Hames couldn’t believe what he heard that day as the assassination was announced on radio and television.
“I made quite a few trips with him and this thing just didn’t happen,” Hames said. “He was just too well protected.”
John W. Bowdich, 80, of Dallas, Texas, was in Dallas aboard Air Force Two the day Kennedy was killed.
“It was really mass confusion on the ground from not knowing what we were going to do and where we were going to go,” he said.
Throughout his career on Air Force Two, Bowditch flew mostly with high-ranking Pentagon, State Department, and CIA leaders, he said.
Around the world
Doyle Whitehead, 79, of Gloster, Miss., crisscrossed the globe with three presidents, from Eisenhower to Johnson.
“You can almost close your eyes and throw a dart at a globe and I’ve been there,” he said.
Kennedy, he recalled, liked Heineken beer and once asked Whitehead about how much a presidential glass could hold.
When told it was 10 ounces, Kennedy had a quick response.
“He said, ‘a bottle of beer has 12 ounces, what do you do with the other two ounces?’” “I said, ‘We throw it away,’ and he laughed.”
Whitehead served more than presidents. In 1969, he said he was on an around-the-world tour with the crew of Apollo 11 — Wapakoneta native Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — just weeks after the astronauts’ historic journey to the moon.
On one stop, Whitehead saw the popularity of the Apollo trio up close on a ride in an open top car from an airport to Karachi, Pakistan, he said.
“The people were lined up from the airport all the way into the city,” Whitehead said. “If they just stuck a hand out they could touch the car. It scared me.”
Retired Air Force Col. Colleen M. Ryan was a navigator on Air Force Two flying on missions in the 1980s and 90s with Vice Presidents Dan Quayle and later Al Gore and congressional leaders like Sen. Bob Dole.
Ryan, 55, of Dayton, remembers most a trip to Mosul, Iraq, before a U.S.-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.
“It was just before we invaded Iraq and we flew into Mosul and then Sen. Dole went off to some quote unquote ‘secret meetings’ and we later found out they were having some last-minute discussions,” said Ryan, a former installation commander at Wright-Patterson.
“It was the last ditch effort I think to convince Saddam Hussein … to negotiate,” she said.