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.