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. Shirley in California

    It makes one question: why is he all of a sudden retiring now?

    January 15, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  2. Steve

    Just curious if the plane will be fumigated on January 19th?

    January 15, 2009 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  3. Danny in Chicago

    Blitzer is a joke and a sell out.

    January 15, 2009 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  4. Anonymous

    I honestly cannot understand why anyone would want to be interviewed by Wolf Blitzer! I turn off CNN when he is on as I cannot stand his monotone!!!

    January 15, 2009 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  5. Jackie in Dallas

    I wonder if this constitutes a breach of security by allowing the filming of sensitive areas? Wolf, tell me you didn't take an entire camera crew with you! I don't think I want possible enemies, both external OR internal, knowing that much about Air Force One!

    January 15, 2009 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  6. Matt

    Kewl. Put up some pictures!!!

    January 15, 2009 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  7. BB

    So what? That makes the Blitzer ego even bigger, but it's a non-news story. BFD !!!

    January 15, 2009 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  8. vic

    I LOVE Wolff Blitzer – he and Jack Cafferty and Anderson Cooper are my favorite CNN reporters. I never miss their shows.

    January 15, 2009 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  9. Proud American

    Be nice Steve, but I agree.

    January 15, 2009 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  10. Freeman

    Why didn't you just land the darn thing in New Orleans ?

    January 15, 2009 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  11. Nice Girl

    I can't wait to see Barack stepping off Air Force One......Rudy Guliani, that's your president. HA HA HA

    January 15, 2009 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  12. TCM

    yes, it will be fumigated on Jan 19, 2012.

    January 15, 2009 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  13. TCM

    oops...2013...my bad!

    January 15, 2009 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  14. Tariq

    Cool stuff..Wolf gets to see inside of Air force one...Its worth it being a senior Ancor of CNN.

    January 15, 2009 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  15. Jeff

    I'm not a Bush fan. I voted for Obama, but why make negative comments when there was really no need to? Politics should be a spirited exchange of ideas rather than personal attacks. Fumigating the plane after Bush is gone? My guess is that those who share this opinion were staunchly defending Pres. Clinton during the Monica days. These same people were highly offended when jokes were made about the "oral office." Those comments were out of line as well. The politics of hypocrisy needs to stop now.

    January 15, 2009 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  16. Capital Insider

    Where is "Welcome to the Obama Show"? I bet CNN has been blocking their comments, although up until recently they'd only publish those comments that rile people up. All of the well thought out ones never got published. In fact, I doubt this one will and get left in "awaiting moderation" limbo forever.

    Come on CNN publish REAL NEWS and well thought out comments, stop be sensationalists and doing the opposite.

    January 15, 2009 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  17. Air Jamaica Pilot

    McCain would love to fly that plane so he can crash it!

    January 15, 2009 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  18. 1/20/13

    Smart for Col.Tillman to retire before he has to fly that incoming family around......I cant remember there names though

    January 15, 2009 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  19. Rave

    Isn't it a security risk to publicly display Air Force One to entire world?
    Find some real news.

    January 15, 2009 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  20. Steve

    It will become an enlightened plane once President Elect Obama steps on it and takes over for George Bush.

    January 15, 2009 02:20 pm at 2:20 pm |
  21. Veronica

    TMC...you are an idiot

    January 15, 2009 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  22. JAE

    Hey Steve:
    You're the south end of a skunk, right where the hole is.

    January 15, 2009 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  23. Nick - West Hills (L.A.), CA

    Fumigation schedule as follows:

    Jan 19, 2009. That's it.

    Obama will be using this aircraft for 8 years.

    After him, another Democrat will be.

    Except for possible use during state funerals of Republican ex-Presidents, don't expect to see any Republican Presidents boarding this aircraft.

    The term "Republican President" is soon to become an oxymoron.

    As it should be.

    January 15, 2009 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  24. Lois, Ont., Canada

    I can hardly wait 'til' 4P.M., local time to see The situation Room. When Wolf Blitzer & Jack Cafferty were away over the holiday season, I was 'lost!' What a thrill it would be to see inside Air Force One. "Way to go, Wolf"

    January 15, 2009 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  25. sam ramezani

    i am so glad the stupidest man in this country finaly is gone after getingy one million iraquis killed just for rich people and desroyed this country. with his lies.

    god is punishing us.we are going to be in a hard time for a long time.
    this is what happens when you have a murderer as your president.

    good luck to all.

    January 15, 2009 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
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