Johnson City veteran recalls presidential flights aboard Marine One

Zach Vance • Nov 5, 2017 at 7:43 PM

For half of his career, Johnson City native and retired Master Sgt. Charles White was responsible for carrying the weight of the free world.

Between 1963 and 1969 and 1971 until 1976, White served as a crew chief in Marine Helicopter Squadron One, or HMX-1, the military group responsible for transporting the president, the vice president, cabinet members and other heads of state aboard a Sikorsky VH-3 Sea King helicopter.

The other half of White’s career was spent in the jungles of Vietnam, and while both assignments were demanding, White admits his time with HMX-1 caused him plenty of stress.

“I think that job messed with my nerves more than Vietnam,” White said.

“As soon as (the president) gets on there, the pilot, co-pilot and the crew are just pins and needles because anything could happen to the helicopter. All the years I was involved, we never had to set that helicopter down for a caution light or anything.”

Although he did co-pilot the Sea King from time to time during training missions, White was the most-visible crewman during executive flights, the one always seen in photographs saluting the president as he boarded or exited the aircraft.

Since every presidential mission was classified top secret, White never could answer his wife’s question, “Where are you traveling to today?” Instead, White told his wife to monitor the newspapers, where his picture was bound to show up saluting the president as he exited Marine One.

Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford all flew aboard Marine One flights accompanied by White. 

White did hesitate for a second to reveal his favorite, based on personal experience, was Nixon. 

“Nixon, he would stop and talk to you. He would thank you every time. He was more like (President Donald) Trump is now,” White said. “He’d get off and call you sergeant and thank you for such a good flight.”

White also recalled Nixon traveled Marine One the most, leaving the White House every single weekend. 

Johnson also personally thanked White for his flight to Glassboro, New Jersey, in June 1967, where the Glassboro Summit Conference took place. 

In a note, tucked inside a framed picture of White saluting Johnson exiting the Sea King’s cabin, one of Johnson’s aides wrote: “The President would like you to have this picture and I would like to thank you for assisting in a smooth and safe flight.” 

In addition to being crew chief, White served as a bartender to Johnson on occasion when the president desired his signature Cutty Sark scotch whiskey and soda.

Before any Johnson flight, White had to stock fresh ice onto the helicopter, and when summoned, he would dash to the back of the helicopter, where a wet bar was fastened, and make the president a drink. 

Above a mantle in White’s house are the same decorative glasses used by the presidents during White’s Marine One tenure.

During the holidays, while serving with the Executive Flight Detachment, White always received an invitation to the White House Christmas party and always left with an enormous, yet elegant, Christmas card from the president. 

To this day, White still has those Christmas cards, each personalized and featuring the Commander-in-Chief’s signature. 

Now 82 years old, White’s military career stretches across a handful of countries and dozens of military bases. 

Growing up in Johnson City, White initially wanted to join the Air Force but at the last second, was recruited into the Marine Corps. 

After completing boot camp training in Parris Island, South Carolina, and advanced combat training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, White was stationed in Quantico, Virginia, where he found favor with an old colonel who sent him to aviation school in Memphis. 

Struggling with some of the learning material, White struck a deal with his staff sergeant to pass him if he stayed two hours after school each day for tutoring. 

“I remember when I left that school, that guy told me, ‘You’re one of the best students I ever had,’ ” White said. 

From there, White was assigned to El Toro, California, then to an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam. 

White said his main assignment in Vietnam consisted of recovering downed airplanes and helicopters, an undoubtedly taxing job, but maybe not as much as transporting the world’s most powerful man. 

Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.





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