By Norm Conant
Forwarded by p38bob, who noted, “What a great get-together of the President’s old Air Force pilot class.”
It was an incredible two days. The occasion was the reunion of former Air Force student pilots in UPT Class 70-04 here at Moody AFB. President George W. Bush was one of those students, and I was their T-38 Flight Commander for the six months they were in that phase of training. They were gracious enough to invite me and a few of their other instructors and training supervisors to share their reminiscences of days gone by.
Tuesday morning, April 4, 2006, Bud Kendrick, who drove up to DC from Gainesville, FL, picked me up at the Metro in Bethesda, and we drove out to Andrews AFB for a tour of Air Force One. After going through security to make certain we were who we said we were, they led us into one of the largest hangars I've ever seen. It can hold both of the Air Force One 747's and the smaller Air Force One Boeing 757, and still have room for a few more aircraft of somewhat smaller dimensions. One of the 74's was in Wichita getting mods, so we only saw one of the 747's and the 757, which we didn't board.
Colonel Tillman, who is the President's pilot, had some of his co-pilots standing by as well as many of the other crew members who man the various sections of AF One, and maintain it on the ground.
Off came our shoes for the walk through. Everything is absolutely spotless. They showed us the entire aircraft and explained how each section works while in flight. The tour took over two hours. When asked how often they are requested to go through this exercise, Col. Tillman said only about once a year, so we felt very, very privileged.
Yes, I sat in the Presidents office chair, AND, in the pilot's seat. After so many years of “round gauges” this panel looked more like a video game.
Tuesday evening we arrived at the White House gate at 1815. After going through security we were met by the President and Mrs. Bush at the front door - Awestruck Event #1. # 2 was when the President took my hand and said, “It's great to see you again, Norm.” (It's nice to be remembered by the powerful).
After drinks, chat, etc., it was to their private dining room for dinner. Since there were 33 of us, including the President and Mrs. Bush, they had set three tables. GW was at #1, Laura was at #2, and #3 was “hosted” by Bud. I was seated directly across the table from Laura; what an honor. She is a real beauty, relaxed and as easy to talk with as any of your closest friends; both of them are.
The menu was delicious, and the conversation beyond description. I'd certainly like to own their wine cellar, too.
After dinner the President and Laura gave us a tour through their private quarters, giving us a lot of history behind architectural features, portraits, furniture, various rooms, etc.
Then GW asked, “Would you guys like to see the Oval Office?”
When he opened the door and I walked into THE ROOM - Awestruck Event #3. Folks, this just wasn't really registering with me by that point. I felt as though I was floating above it all and observing this take place outside of my body. Maybe the fact that I'd had no sleep since early Monday morning didn't help the situation, either. NO, I did NOT sit in THE CHAIR. After all, some things are sacred. However, I did walk behind it and place both hands on the back of it. The thought occurred to me that there had been many a high level butt chewing issued from this exalted side of the desk. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall. (No, I would have had to pass on a few of those infamous moments during the previous administration.)
For me this, in many respects, was the high point of the evening. For an hour or so we had a one-on-one discussion and cabinet level policy and situation briefing by the President of the United States in the Oval Office.
We asked questions, got answers, made various personal observations, got replies, and, in short, got a better insight into the President's strategic thinking, policies, hopes and ambitions, than you could get from any other source available today - thanks to our liberal media. He replied to personal points of view and our specific opinions. He was relaxed and candid with his remarks, and displayed the intelligence, grasp, and self-assurance that we all hope that our President possesses.
He also told of Condi's great talent for international affairs. One such incident he mentioned was her very firm encounter with the leader of one of a foreign nation with whom we were having a problem concerning their internal injustices. In short, she laid down the law to him.
The President is reverent, dynamic, articulate, passionate, and very emphatic about his concern for the safety of our nation, the rest of the world, and his hope that all oppressed people will be able to gain the liberties that are their God given right. He also believes that it is our national destiny to help them achieve this. He made observations and specific comments I would not care to discuss in a public forum, as the media would cut and splice to their agenda.
President Bush has a lot of frustration toward the media. He told us how our forces had been able to eliminate much of the terrorist's top leadership, and how close we had been to nailing bin Laden. We have the technical ability to track the bad guys electronically. If they as much as picked up a phone to make a call, ordinance was immediately directed to the site placing the call. It was just a matter of time before bin Laden was the one to collect the inbound.
When the media leaked the methods we were using, the terrorists immediately stopped using electronic communications and started using runners. In spite of this, the President promised that we will get bin Laden, and we will cross any national border to do so. Another concern he has is the growing desire among some people in this nation to revert to a policy of isolationism.
My own personal view point on this has always been: If you aren't a member of the “club”, you can't do anything to help solve the “club's” problems. Isolationism is not the answer, as tempting as it might seem at times.
Wednesday AM, we were at the helicopter pad on the White House lawn to see him off to CN where he was to give a speech. He called out to us to behave ourselves and that he'd had a great time the night before. This was followed by a tour of the rest of the White House we had not seen the night before, guided by Mr. Oliver Hensley, a member of his White House staff. This fellow should teach history in a university when he retires from his government position; he's a storehouse of White House history and detail.
Wednesday evening, we had a dinner at the Army Navy Club followed by a panel concerning GW's AF and Guard experiences. This was organized and led by the staff of Ghost Wings Magazine, Adam and Brian Makos. A few of us had worked with them earlier when they commissioned a painting commemorating the President's pilot training days at Moody AFB. Their magazine is a beauty and should be well received by all who are interested in aviation history and the heroes who helped shape it.
The President and Laura Bush are easy to talk with. He is articulate, passionate, and absolutely convinced that we are doing the right thing regarding terrorism. As I mentioned to him, there is no quick solution as it may very likely take at least three generations to change the radical Islamic mind set. He agreed, and stated that he is willing to take all the time necessary. As he put it, we are still in Korea after fifty years, helping those people guard their freedom. It is very noticeable that he does not bash his opponents in either public or private conversation - a point that is mighty refreshing in today's American political environment.
When asked of his personal reaction when he was first told of the attack on Twin Towers, he said his first thought was, “What kind of an idiot pilot gets so fouled up that he hits a building by mistake.” But when the next one hit, he knew we were at war.
At that time AF One didn't have the capability for the instant communications he needed to speak with his Washington staff, so they landed at Barksdale AFB where he had access to the military nets. AF One now has the equipment required to do anything while in flight that can be done on the ground. Also, he was worried about the possible dangers to his family back in DC. He also told of his conversations with the national leaders of some of the Islamic nations. He told them, to pick sides in the fight against terrorism, RIGHT NOW!. If they weren't with us, they were against us, and they would suffer the consequences. A very decisive stand!
Rest assured, we have the right man in the Oval Office!
To be able to sit around and talk as we did years ago in a completely different situation was really wonderful, and a privilege. The President and his classmates all seemed as full of the camaraderie as they had shared over a third of a century earlier. It was great to see this interchange, and to know that you had been, in a small part, a participant in their road to success. (It seems that I've had a hand in the initial training of darn near half of this nation's cadre of airline pilots.)
It was a jammed packed couple of days, and I'm certain I will think of many other little things said and done as time goes by.