News & Politics

My First Time . . . Flying Air Force One Into a War Zone

Mark Tillman shares his tale of a career first.

Photograph courtesy of the White House.

As told to Shane Harris.

I’d been in command of Air Force One for two years under President George W. Bush when we learned that he wanted to surprise the troops in Iraq for Thanksgiving dinner in 2003. I had to come up with a plan to fly into a combat zone, something Air Force One had never done.

See Also:

More My First Times

We first got word in early September. My navigator and I sat down and planned it. I looked at the airfield in Baghdad. I had to figure out: Where am I going to park a 747, and where am I going to get 50,000 gallons of fuel for the return flight? We knew we’d come in at night, because there was a fear that the aircraft would be a target for mortar fire. The President was adamant that if I felt there was potential for harm, we’d scrap the mission.

We couldn’t tell anyone in Baghdad we were coming, but we needed to get clearances in advance to land. So I’d call on my cell phone, using a fake name, and ask the airport about the procedures for bringing in a large plane carrying a VIP. I’d say it was a senator or some celebrity coming over with the USO. Someone would call me back with the clearances, but we’d always cancel. They were none the wiser, but we figured out that the best way to sneak Air Force One in would be to tell them we were carrying a VIP.

When it was time to go, we snuck the President out of his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and back to Andrews Air Force Base. We flew across the Atlantic using a Special Air Mission call sign. Everything was fine until we hit the British coast. It was daylight, and there was a British plane in the vicinity that we knew would see us. So we turned away. Five minutes later, we hear a call from the pilot to air-traffic control: “London, is that Air Force One?”

Our hearts sank. My navigator set a flight plan with the controllers that said we were a Gulfstream V, a much smaller aircraft. The controller said to the British pilot, “No, that’s a Gulfstream V.” We could hear the pilot laughing. “Okay, London,” he said.

We got to Iraq and shut off all the lights as we came in. All they could see on the ground was the silhouette of a large aircraft. It wasn’t until they came up to the plane that they realized it was the President of the United States.

President Bush came up to the cockpit wearing a T-shirt and dress pants. He sat behind me in the jump seat and asked, “Hey, Tillman, what’s it like bringing the commander-in-chief into a combat zone?” I said, “It’s the best, Mr. President.”

Colonel Mark Tillman (retired) was commander of Air Force One from 2001 to 2009.

This article appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.