Charles Palmer crisscrossed continents and flew to dozens of countries aboard Air Force One, but there was one duty every flight for one president he made sure to carry out.
He made sure President Gerald Ford had a bowl of strawberries.
Palmer was one of about 10 present day and former crewmen of the famed presidential fleet— spanning the Nixon to Obama administrations — to appear Monday at a first-ever President’s Day event of its kind at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Visitors snapped photos and asked questions to hear behind the scenes intrigue of life aboard the famed Air Force One jetliners.
One day during the Ford administration, a baggage handler forgot to bring the strawberries aboard, remembered Palmer, 80, now of Dunkirk, Md. and a former chief flight attendant.
He called the White House “in a panic mode.”
When the president arrived, he carried a bag with him. “He walks aboard, calls me into the stateroom (and) he tells me, ‘Sergeant, I’m not used to carrying my own strawberries. And then he smiled and said, ‘Would you fix me a dish please?’”
“So I got the dish fixed, took it to him, and he said, ‘Thanks, corporal,” the retired chief master sergeant remembered.
Generations of presidential airlift crewmen who served with the 89th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Md., called the museum home Monday, the place where 10 aircraft mark the largest collection of Air Force One planes.
Tech. Sgt. Woodson “Woody” Culp, 27, is one of the newest members of the select Presidential Airlift Group, joining two and half years ago.
The maintenance crewman encountered President Barack Obama on his final mission last month aboard the current Boeing 747-200s that serve as the president’s jetliner today.
Obama was presented a group gift of a globe mounted on legs that looked the Air Force Memorial, which has three towering silver streaks resembling the path of aircraft flying vertically. The globe had 281 dots, every one a destination Obama flew on Air Force One around the world.
Culp shook the hand of the president that day.
“That was probably the coolest experience I’ve ever had not just in my career but in my life because even for somebody like me who’s in proximity to the president, I still don’t get to see him that often or let alone interact with him,” the Fort Myers, Fla., native said.
For crewmen like Palmer who served four presidents, starting with President Richard M. Nixon, coming into contact with the commander-in-chief inside the airliner was more common.
Ford would invite Air Force One crew to birthday and Christmas parties, and outings on the golf course while traveling, Palmer said.
Nixon was quiet, Palmer remembered who served in the midst of the president’s Watergate scandal, or the break-in and coverup of Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
“I came on after Watergate, and everything got really quiet on the airplane, so the guys told me,” Palmer said. “(Nixon) was a very nice man. Never came out of the cabin in most cases.”
Retired Master Sgt. Peter J. Patrick flew on a secret mission into Baghdad, Iraq, with President George W. Bush in 2003, and loaded former President Ronald Reagan’s casket aboard a presidential Boeing 747-200 in California for the former commander-in-chief’s state funeral in Washington, D.C., in 2004.
“To me, that was my highlight” of his career, said Patrick, 44, of Beavercreek, who along with his brother, Jonathan, served on Air Force One as a maintainer and trainer.
“For a maintenance guy working this aircraft, it’s kind of like walking into Disneyland every day,” Peter Patrick said. “You’re constantly waiting for somebody to tap you on the shoulder and tell you you’re in the wrong plane. I don’t think it’s really lost on anybody that works there. They realize the honor and the prestige it is to work there.”
Today, Patrick works on a Wright-Patterson managed initiative to replace the Air Force One fleet, designated VC-25s in the military, with Boeing 747-8 jets. The new jumbo jets have come under scrutiny in the early days of the Trump administration. President Donald J. Trump has criticized the price tag of the planes.
“Trying to get parts has been very difficult, that’s why we’re in the process of buying two new aircraft to replace the current Air Force One,” Patrick said.
Greg Mitchell, 54, of Sidney, brought his family members to the museum for a rare chance to meet the crewmen.
“The whole thing is history right in front of you,” he said, and being among the people that witnessed that history “it’s even more special.”
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