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Red Carpet for a Presidential Copter

The aircraft used by several former leaders arrives at the Reagan library near Simi Valley, where it will be part of an exhibit.

March 20, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

A chopper previously known as Marine One touched down Friday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library with a whoosh and a roar, the last hurrah for a great, green relic of three presidential administrations.

Hovering over the library's re-creation of the South Lawn of the White House, the chopper blew the petals from a bed of newly planted peach-colored Nancy Reagan roses. After its short hop from Naval Base Ventura County, a red carpet was laid to its gangway. A Navy color guard marched to its threshold and a brass quintet from the Air National Guard Band of the Southwest played "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The pomp underscored the helicopter's place in presidential history. The aging Sikorsky VH-3A was part of the fleet serving Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford. Since 1976, it has been based in Norfolk, Va., where it has shuttled VIPs between the naval bases there and Washington, D.C.

A new home for the 42-year-old helicopter and for Reagan's Air Force One is under construction on the grounds of the library near Simi Valley. It is slated to open next year.

"This is something you can identify with," said Jon Mathisrud, a manufacturer who traveled from his home in St. Paul, Minn., for the ceremony. "You see these Marine One helicopters on the news all the time."

Nancy Reagan was scheduled to attend but did not. She was suffering from "an extended bronchial infection," said Duke Blackwood, the library's executive director.

Blackwood told a crowd of several hundred that the helicopter was a significant addition to the library. With it, he said, "we'll realize Ronald Reagan's dream of bringing these historic aircraft to the people of the U.S."

The presidential helicopter fleet originated in the Eisenhower administration from Ike's desire for "an evacuation system" that would carry national leaders out of harm's way, said Jim Curry, manager of the aircraft collection at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla.

The helicopter at the Reagan library is on loan from the naval museum. No research has been done into its specific uses, but Curry said it was not the chopper that famously ferried Nixon from the White House after his resignation. That helicopter is on display in Rhode Island, he said.

D. Michael Glynn, a retired colonel who was one of Reagan's pilots, choked up at Friday's observance as he told stories of his flights with the president.

Glynn said he would always remember Reagan's effort to ease his crew's anxiety about maintaining the safety of the leader of the free world.

On a hop from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base, Glynn saw a cockpit warning light flash -- "exactly what you don't want to see when you've got the president of the United States on board," he said.

Landing at Anacostia Naval Station with a companion chopper from the Marine One fleet, Glynn was shaken. Reagan, though, strode across the tarmac to the healthy chopper, kicked a tire, and told nervous crew members: "This one looks good -- let's take it!"

Glynn spent most of his weekends at Camp David when Reagan was in office. Reagan would regularly invite everyone in his entourage in for movies -- both first-run flicks and chestnuts from Reagan's Hollywood days.

"It's an honor to serve the president," said Glynn, who now is assistant principal of a parochial school in Yuma, Ariz. "But it's so much more enjoyable when you respect and love the man -- and that respect comes back."

Later in the afternoon, the crew that piloted the old Marine One from Virginia flew it a couple of hundred yards to the site where the Air Force One Pavilion is being built. The fuselage of the retired Boeing 707 sits there, along with its detached wings.

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