Memoir of a White House press charter to Russia
By Bill Dixon
With the Russians continuing to kick up diplomatic dust, albeit on a minor scale so far, with the U.S., NATO, and the UN over issues in Kosovo, Chechnya and the middle east, it brings to mind my personal encounter with the real "cold war" days back in November 1974.
I was the pilot in command of a TWA charter for the White House press corps accompanying President Gerald Ford on his initial trip overseas after succeeding Richard Nixon. Ford flew to Vladivostok on Air Force One to meet for the first time with Leonid Brezhneff, premier of Russia!
The long distance of the flight, from Washington to Tokyo with a fuel stop at Anchorage, required a five-man cockpit crew --- three pilots and two flight engineers. After two days in Tokyo we were joined by a Russian navigator and radioman for the roundtrip Tokyo-Vladivostok leg.
We spent 10 hours at the airport in Vladivostok waiting for newsmen at the conference site to send dispatches to our aircraft for return to Tokyo that night. This was to avoid Russian censorship. We were the first aircraft from a Western nation ever to land at this restricted fighter base! It was November 25, 1974, cold and snowy.
We landed about 15 minutes ahead of Air Force One and watched from nearby as Russian Premier Leonid Brezhnev and entourage greeted Ford. A Russian major was assigned to us and several soldiers were stationed outside the plane, and later he escorted us, and the Air Force One crew, to the officers' club for dinner. The major, very distant at first, warmed up when I asked if I might take his picture. He even allowed me to take photos of non-military scenes and people on the fighter base, including some children.
We flew out around the middle of the night. There were warm and friendly goodbye handshakes after the cool initial reception. A Pan American charter a couple of days later brought out our press and White House passengers at the end of the conference. We waited in Tokyo to fly them home.
In the 70's there were usually two White House press flights for newsmen. Normally, TWA flew one and Pan Am the other. One always took off before the president's aircraft, and landed ahead. The other press charter took off after the departure, and landed afterwards, so the president could be covered departing and arriving. If only one press plane was along, as happened on this flight, we had to pass Air Force One enroute, which took some precise pre-flight planning and coordination!
We airline crews shared a dark joke, i.e., that this schedule was to ensure that if the president's plane were to crash on departure or arrival, the press wouldnt miss it! When Ford slipped on steps deplaning Air Force One in rain at Madrid during a 1975 trip to Europe, reporters and photographers were there to catch it, and the picture and story was plastered over all the papers and TV worldwide. I was watching (we had arrived ahead!), and it really was just a minor misstep, which the press managed to blow all out of proportion.
But we always enjoyed these White House press flights, as they presented unique challenges and almost never lacked excitement!
Bill Dixon (1936-1978 ) started as a Ticket Agent and served in the News Bureau and Flight Operations.