January 15th, 2009
06:38 PM ET
11 months ago

Blitzer: An inside look at Air Force One

Blitzer: Tillman gave me a behind-the-scenes look at the famous aircraft.
Blitzer: Tillman gave me a behind-the-scenes look at the famous aircraft.


Watch Wolf Blitzer's interview with Air Force One pilot Col. Mark Tillman today and tomorrow in The Situation Room at 6 pm ET.

ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Maryland (CNN) - Driving to this sprawling base just outside Washington, D.C. this week brought back lots of memories. Covering a president often means traveling with a president aboard this extraordinary aircraft, and as CNN's Senior White House Correspondent during the Clinton administration, I used to come here all the time to board Air Force One.

This week, I had a rare chance to catch up with Col. Mark Tillman, who's been flying the giant Boeing 747 since 1992, the final year of George H.W. Bush's presidency. He continued to fly for President Clinton’s full eight years, and became the chief pilot when President George W. Bush took office in 2001. Col. Tillman, who is now getting ready to retire, agreed to sit down with me and reflect on those years.

I interviewed him in the cockpit, where he told me some amazing stories of the presidents and the plane. He recalled flying around the country and the Gulf of Mexico on September 11, 2001, trying to come up with a safe place to land. He was emotional in recalling the heartbreak of flying over New Orleans and the Gulf coast right after Katrina hit. And he told me the story of that secret and dangerous landing in the Baghdad war zone on Thanksgiving 2003.

"It was still a very, very hot zone, was flying into Baghdad, especially without a whole lot of advance notice, was pretty dangerous," he told me. "The challenge wasn't so much to get him in there because we easily fooled everyone and got him in there. The challenge was once he was on the ground and everybody knew he was there to get him back out again."

He also took me on a tour of the plane - all the way from the cockpit and secure communications areas upstairs and the presidential bedroom downstairs in the front of the plane, though the conference room, the "hospital" on board, the senior staff and guest areas — ending with the Secret Service and press seats in the back of the plane. He also shared some largely unknown details about the aircraft. His bottom line: don't believe everything you saw in the Harrison Ford movie "Air Force One."

"Whatever the president can do in the White House, we can do at 45,000 feet," he said. "...Whatever he needs, we'll take care of it.

"...As one of the presidential pilots said years ago, he knows he's going to get the president home safely because he's got a wife and kids that he's going back home safe to," he said. "So it's the same mentality. I don't think about the president being downstairs. I know - similar to an airline pilot, I've got a lot of cherished people in the back, so I go out of my way to make sure I do everything perfectly."

Watch my interview with Tillman today and tomorrow in The Situation Room at 6 pm ET.


Filed under: Popular Posts • Wolf Blitzer
soundoff (64 Responses)
  1. Farrell, Houston, Tx

    Wolf's interview is with the pilot and about the pilot of Airforce One and it's all printed in simple English so we don't need a translator.

    January 15, 2009 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  2. SOUTHERN HOTTIE

    Ugg. That beard! Wolf get rid of it. Didn't you get the memo Bill Richardson got?

    Shave it off please. You will look less like a sycophant and more like a journalist.

    January 15, 2009 09:15 pm at 9:15 pm |
  3. bohicasfc

    Reading all the drivle on hear proves to me that most Americans onn here are just plain stupid and hateful. Give me a break. President Bush has made sure we have not hag another attack from Bin ladin or his friends. As far as the troubles with the economy all of Congress is to blame. All you trash talking citizens should be proud that we had a President that stood up for the thousands of Americans that bum ordered killed. We have not killed one million people in Iraq the different sects did most of it to their people with sucide attacts against women and children and their own countrymen. The Muluas(?) say go forth and kill the non belivers. But according to most of you it's our President's fault. I love my country and am proud to have served it in the NAM. So for all you people that hate I have one thing to say. I will support our new President as much as I have supported every President in my life time. I did not allways agree with their policy's but I supported then just the same. With the exception of the worst President in my life time the peanut farmer from Ga. Nice man lousy President. SFC Ray 5th SF(A Team Leader) SOG 1964 RVN

    January 15, 2009 09:46 pm at 9:46 pm |
  4. El Diablo

    Jack 3:52 P.M. "would all you losers get off the internet and get back to work or look for a job." 3:52.....Uhhhh, what's you're excuse there Jack?

    January 15, 2009 10:30 pm at 10:30 pm |
  5. Anonymous

    Have you all forgotten the legacy of the Kennedys? Give Caroline a chance i am sure she will make a difference.

    January 15, 2009 10:32 pm at 10:32 pm |
  6. Greg Hodges

    The "Wolf-man" certainly gets around. He is one of the best in the business obviously; but I worry journalists sometimes get a little too close to what goes on where the average person would NEVER be allowed. How can you maintain true objectivity; when EVERYTHING in politics is SPIN,SPIN,SPIN.

    January 15, 2009 10:36 pm at 10:36 pm |
  7. bankrupt USA

    Sweet nostalgia over the plane that flew over New Orleans during Katrina to watch Brownie do such a good job. Billions for Iraq and pennies for our own country.

    January 15, 2009 10:37 pm at 10:37 pm |
  8. Breaking News

    Dear moderator,are you and TCM the same person?Why are his rancid posts always allowed on and other credible posts always left off.It must be nice making your own news and creating so much hate.

    January 15, 2009 10:41 pm at 10:41 pm |
  9. Jeff from Jersey

    Put Bush in it a drop him without a parachute over New Orleans...or Baghdad...or Afghanistan...or Pakistan....or Iran...or North Korea...any of those places where he had the notion's best interests at heart.

    9/11 happened 3/4 of the way through his first term so he had plenty of time to pay attention to the nation's best interests BEFORE that happened.

    To paraphrase Laura Bush,while responndimg to a different question by Lary King still hit the nail on the head in ALL matters of this nations best interests when she said "George doesn't pay attention".

    WELL SAID!NOW GET OUT OF THE PLANE WOLFF.tHERE IS STILL ONE MORE MISSION!

    January 15, 2009 10:46 pm at 10:46 pm |
  10. Ula Nejad

    The sensible ones retire or resign. Who wants to serve under a black president and make his nasty wife's bed? Yuks! Black America spoke up too late. Leave while you can. That new buick looks fake.

    January 15, 2009 10:49 pm at 10:49 pm |
  11. President Bush #1

    President Bush made the hard, unpopular decisions that kept us all safe, but got him criticized in the liberal media and by a lot of immature and clueless liberal Democrats. You Dems ought to get down on your knees and thank Mr Bush for keeping you all safe, When it comes to National Security, Obama will do well to pay close attention to what Bush did ...and how he did it.

    And to all the Obamabotics on here – put a cork in it. The day after 9-11. none of you would be criticizing VP Cheney for waterboarding -- you would simply sat – Do whatever it takes to keep our country safe.

    January 15, 2009 10:53 pm at 10:53 pm |
  12. lynne

    Have people gone mad?

    January 15, 2009 11:08 pm at 11:08 pm |
  13. Sully for Air Force One

    Captain Sully should be appointed as Obama's new pilot. He is a hero and the among the quickest thinking, most skilled pilots in the world.

    January 15, 2009 11:24 pm at 11:24 pm |
  14. ALEX

    Hey................ Jack do you have a job for me?

    January 15, 2009 11:41 pm at 11:41 pm |
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