Have you ever seen a Presidential motorcade? It’s certainly impressive with car after car in shining black whooshing past on unhindered roadways with so many police escorts you might think the rest of the city is without police protection. I was part of that motorcade once. The year was 1982 (maybe 1983) and President Reagan was in office. I was driving my 1972 Ford Pinto wagon and I was as official as any other vehicle within the police escort. I’ll explain that of course, but first let’s talk about flying in bad weather.
Let’s say you’re on a flight from Phoenix to New York. While enroute, the weather at your New York destination sours. What are your options? Actually, you as the passenger don’t have any options other than relying on your flight crew and the professionals on the ground to find the best solution. Typically a solution will be either a holding pattern near your destination which would delay the landing until the weather clears, or a different destination airport would be selected — one where the weather is acceptable for landing. If the weather sours before you leave your departure airport, options may include a delayed departure or even a flight cancellation.
What if you’re the President of the United States? Do you think the President has to deal with such concerns? Yes and no. Yes, because the weather is the weather and we all know how that goes! But no, because when the President takes to the sky he has put his trust in many highly skilled professionals, perhaps the best in the world, to ensure delays are kept to a minimum and that flights are rarely canceled. However, there are indeed cancellations, delays and changes to the best laid plans.
As a young Air Force meteorologist, I was assigned to Camp David, the Presidential Retreat located in the Catoctin Mountains of central Maryland. I was not there to support the President (at least, not directly). I was there to support the President’s aircraft – Marine One, a VH-3D Sea King that is perhaps the most recognized helicopter of all time. I provided weather observations, relayed forecasts to the flight crew and was their “eyes on the ground” for all flight operations into or out of Camp David.
And so it was I found myself standing in the rain, without shelter, at the high school football field in Thurmont, Maryland waiting for Marine One. Thurmont? A football field? As I mentioned earlier, when the weather is bad at your flight’s destination airport, an alternate airport is selected. In this case, the alternate “airport” for Marine One was the high school football field in Thurmont. Why Thurmont? Why a football field? Why does a helicopter even need an alternate? Thurmont, first of all, is not too far away from Camp David, making for an easy drive by motorcade to the wooded retreat. But, more importantly, it’s significantly lower in elevation — meaning, if the higher elevations are socked-in with fog, drizzle or even snow there’s a very good chance the lower elevations will have better weather. Why a football field? Mainly, wide-open spaces with somewhat controlled access. Thurmont was small enough at the time to not have an airport or a helipad, so the football field was most ideal (technically, the helicopter did not land on the playing surface but well off to the side). And yes, helicopters may have a few more options in bad weather than their fixed-wing brethren but the pilots still need to be able to see the ground as well as the objects around them as they ascend and descend even though modern avionics will let the pilot fly “blind.”
By radio, I’d already been in contact with flight ops in Washington and another meteorologist at Camp David several times over the previous few hours (we would always be onsite hours prior to expected touch-down, even more so if foul weather was anticipated). The weather at Camp David, as well as the Thurmont alternate, was so bad that Washington decided to send up a scouting helicopter to verify that the conditions were truly as bad as reported. I heard the whump-whump-whump of the chopper blades well before the craft broke out of the clouds fairly close to me but this was no time for pleasantries — as soon as the pilot saw the ground he was back into the clouds for another scouting run to Camp David.
Due to the current and expected weather, it was determined that the Thurmont ALZ (alternate landing zone) would be used for President Reagan’s arrival, now less than an hour away (Camp David is a quick helicopter ride from the White House) and things began to get exciting at the ALZ. Already the Thurmont residents were gathering, despite the truly miserable weather conditions. They knew that whenever an Air Force person was at the football field sending up weather balloons that the President might make an appearance (I say “might” because twice each month we would go to the field, open our gear locker and test the radios and weather equipment; most times under sunny skies and with no appearance of the President). Within a few minutes other support vehicles arrived from Camp David: crash trucks, ambulances, Secret Service, USMC security and various limos (some empty for the arriving VIPs from the White House; some occupied with the Camp David official “welcoming committee”). Around the football field’s fence it seemed the Thurmont crowd had grown to 3- or 4-deep as 100-200 people looked on.
Again, the whump-whump-whumps we heard were the blades of the scouting helicopter: one more pass to make sure the most exact conditions were relayed to Marine One. Moments later a second series of whump-whump-whumps got louder and louder, eventually breaking free of the clouds as Marine One descended to the field and stopped. With Marine One still under power and not yet settled on its landing gear, the USMC security detail took position forming a perimeter around the landing zone. Once in place, Marine One settled into the grass, its gear sinking into the soft, rain-soaked earth, its engines throttled back and the blade whir becoming a mere whisper.
With the chopper now on the ground my job was finished. And because my gear locker was the only source of electricity for the ALZ and the location for the radios, the Commander of Camp David was right beside me as he saluted and welcomed President Reagan. In the rain, Mr. and Mrs. Reagan and the arriving VIPs made their way to the waiting limos while I secured the locker and made my way to my Pinto. The Marines settled into the muck: they would stay overnight guarding the helicopter.
Security then blocked traffic for the motorcade to leave the ball field and begin the climb to Camp David. Last in line, me and my somewhat rusty and every bit as ugly as the day it was new, 1972 Pinto station wagon. We twisted our way into the clouds and before long we were whisked into the compound that, since 1942, has been the retreat for the President, site of such historical events as the Camp David Accords in 1978, visits of world leaders and dignitaries for more than 60 years, and at least one Ford Pinto in the parking lot next to the Marine One hangar.
That particular day was rainy, wet, cold and dreary — but it was definitely something worth writing home about, and I did (today it would make an excellent FaceBook status update, wouldn’t it?)! My experience that day, as well as all of my experiences with the Presidential motorcade, Marine One and Camp David have become lasting memories. The Pinto Wagon? Not so much.