A newsmaker you should know: Haigh had front-row seats aboard Air Force One

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John L. Haigh Sr. traveled the globe from 1973 to 1992, taking care of world leaders while witnessing history aboard the presidential plane.

The Murrysville resident is a former chief steward of Air Force One.

"I always said the passengers were ordinary people like you and me who did extraordinary things," he said. "Whether you agree with them politically or not, they are still good people."

The history he witnessed as part of the Air Force One flight crew is chronicled in his book, "Force One: An Honor, Privilege and Pleasure to Serve," which was released in June. In addition to being available through typical booksellers, the book is also for sale at the Smithsonian and Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

The book highlights his life as a boy growing up in the small Fayette County village of Lambert and, after graduating from German Township High School in 1960, his enlistment in the Air Force.

In the early 1960s, he volunteered for flying duty and was sent to train at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

"And that is where my world traveling began," Mr. Haigh recalled. "It was my goal to travel and see the world and serve my country, and my dad -- a veteran -- was very pleased when I enlisted."

He was based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, and his first overseas assignment was in Turkey from 1969 to 1971. In 1973, he volunteered and was accepted into the 89th Airlift Wing, home of Air Force One. The position required top-secret clearance.

"One of my first VIP trips was with the Apollo 17 astronauts on a 33-day presidential good will trip around the world," Mr. Haigh, 70, recalled.

One of his most treasured memories is a conversation that he said gave him "goose bumps" with Apollo 17 Cmdr. Eugene Cernan on the balcony of a hotel suite in Honolulu.

"He said, 'You know, when I was a young boy, I often wondered what it would be like to walk on the moon and now that I've been there and done that, I know how it feels,' ... and he's telling me about it," Mr. Haigh said.

First flying on the "backup plane" to Air Force One, he accompanied vice presidents Gerald Ford and Walter Mondale, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other high ranking government officials.

On Air Force One he traveled with President Richard Nixon to Europe and to the Middle East in 1974.

Flying on what he called a "one of a kind airplane," he said he witnessed "quite a moment in history" when President Richard Nixon presented Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with an Army helicopter as a gift.

In September 1979, Mr. Haigh was selected as a permanent member of the Air Force One flight crew and continued to serve as chief steward for the last 16 months of the Carter administration, eight years with President Ronald Reagan and almost four years with President George H.W. Bush.

In his memoir, compiled from years of keeping journals, Mr. Haigh remembers his adventures while ensuring the safety and comfort of first families, staff and guests aboard the 707 and later the 747 plane that is still used today.

"We prided ourselves on always having everything available. We had a list of all their likes and dislikes. We would communicate with the director of the White House mess, and we knew about any dietary changes or restrictions," Mr. Haigh said.

It was former White House press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, who said he was tired of the healthy fare served aboard the plane and requested a "man's meal" of beef Wellington, Mr. Haigh said.

He noted that about the only type of cooking that could not be done on the plane was deep frying because of safety issues.

The staff on Air Force One maintained the plane's food inventory, shopping -- in civilian clothes -- at grocery stores that were pre-approved by the Secret Service.

"We could prepare lots of entrees and flash-freeze them and store up to 200 meals for a two-week trip around the world," he said.

Mr. Haigh also remembers accompanying Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1983 on a tour of the West Coast.

"Queen Elizabeth came out of her state room with a little camera and knelt to take a picture from the aircraft window of her royal yacht going under a bridge below ... I was just standing there saying, 'I don't believe it -- they're just like us,' " he recalled.

In 1989, he observed the end of an era.

"We took President Reagan to Berlin when he made that speech. ... You know, he put some things in that speech that his staff didn't want there; for instance, they didn't want those words, 'Tear down that wall.' "

The atmosphere on the plane on the flight home was "upbeat," he said.

The celebration of his career following his last flight on Air Force One was bittersweet for him.

He recalled that President George H.W. Bush "cut a slice of cake and handed me a glass of champagne and said lot of nice things that made me very humble."

And when Mr. Haigh explained to the president that he was still on duty and not permitted to drink an alcoholic beverage, the president responded, "As your commander-in-chief, I rescind that order."

Before Mr. Haigh retired from the flight crew as a chief master sergeant in 1992, the president and Mrs. Bush asked about his future plans.

"I really wanted to go work for them at the White House in the ushers' office, doing the same thing there as I had done on the airplane But come Nov. 4, President Bush and I were both looking for work," he said with a laugh.

Since then, Mr. Haigh has held various positions, including founding The Sharing Love Foundation in Washington, D.C., to raise funds for children who require operations. He also managed a carpet cleaning business and drove a limousine.

At 62, he retired and has recovered from bouts with pancreatic cancer and melanoma.

He moved back to Western Pennsylvania in 2006 with his second wife Jessie, who was a high school classmate.

"My heart has always been in Western Pennsylvania, no matter where I've been," he said.

Laurie Bailey, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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