January 15th, 2009
06:38 PM ET
10 years ago

Blitzer: An inside look at Air Force One

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/01/15/art.blitzer1.cnn.jpg caption="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. Steve (the real one)

    Steve/TCM/Proud American,
    Why would the plane need fumigating? This is a sad commentary on disrespect fo rour leadership and soon to be leadership! Some of you dislike Bush (some hate) and some dislike (and hate) Obama. Our government has provided that right but God will judge Idol words! Have a nice day!

    January 15, 2009 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  2. Franky


    That's where I'm gonna be when I become president and revive the GOP...

    January 15, 2009 02:41 pm at 2:41 pm |
  3. dontforgetthepast

    "Whatever the president can do in the White House, we can do at 45,000 feet"...so for Clinton, I guess they had a supply of interns next to a ample supply of Big Macs next to a big bag of weed.

    January 15, 2009 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  4. arc, Lugano CH

    Gary Oldman stole the show in Air Force 1. But he was even better in "The Professional" – however you can't beat the original "Leon".

    January 15, 2009 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  5. DH Mid MI

    Too Bad Wolf that you'll be a repeat.......Fox News did it weeks ago.

    January 15, 2009 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  6. al landers

    I share the same sentiments vic. Wolf,jack and anderson are my persons at cnn. Would break the traffic lights sometime to make sure I get home in time for the shows lol."HAPPENING NOW" lol.

    January 15, 2009 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  7. vedastus

    I can't wait to see Mr PRESIDENT OBAMA using this Air force one
    Good luck Mr PRESIDENT

    January 15, 2009 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  8. Outspoken

    THANKS, JEFF!! It's nice to know that there are some Obama supporters with a sense of civility who are filled with hate.

    January 15, 2009 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  9. Johnny the Boy

    Air Jamaica Pilot

    I have friends who are serving the US as fighter pilots in hot spots all over the world. Your comments insinuate that any US combat pilot who is shot down while performing dangerous service for the US is incompetent.

    At least McCain had the courage to fly into those active combat zones just like all the combat pilots before him and since.

    How many SAMs have you avoided in you flights into Jamaica?

    January 15, 2009 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  10. Bob

    If it was really a security risk, they wouldn't have let him do the interview!!

    January 15, 2009 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  11. Erik from Real Pennsylvania

    What's up with all this anti-Blitzer talk? He's one of the last true news anchors on television, one who does not tell us how HE feels about an issue or event, nor how WE should feel about it, simply report ing the event occured. Are you all so brainwashed by the split-screen talking heads yelling at each other, that you've forgotten what real journalism looks like?

    January 15, 2009 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  12. Jean, CANADA

    Isn't this a secutity risk??? There are just some things the public shouldn't know!!!

    January 15, 2009 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  13. Thank you President Bush

    God Bless President Bush for keeping us all safe after the 9-11 attacks. You performed the most important aspect of your job with honor and with efficiency, and all Americans should applaud and thank you.

    We can only hope and pray that President Elect Obama performs equally well in keeping us safe.

    January 15, 2009 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  14. Marshall

    Steve (the real one) and Jeff,

    You guys are right on. Why do we alway turn everything into a playground argument of name calling adn finger pointing. I wish we could all act our ages.


    January 15, 2009 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  15. Charlize

    I agree with others in that Blitzer, Cafferty and Cooper are BY FAR the very best of CNN. I also like Rick Sanchez (until he starts speaking Spanglish, sort of to show off he's fully bilingual, but to me he sounds like a moron when he does that). Today, Blitzer is number one at CNN IMO, and Cafferty makes his show very interesting and fun. Great reporting, keep up the excellent work!

    January 15, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  16. jack

    would all you losers get off the internet and get back to work or look for a job.

    January 15, 2009 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  17. lynn

    CNN is a sell out. MSNBC is my channel now. Not sure why everyone feels this requires a negative comment, either side. Its just a freaking plane!!

    January 15, 2009 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  18. Griff

    Migration! Every Pilot. But Most "Every Air-LIne". You have Computers... Birds have to Fly.!!!

    January 15, 2009 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  19. Chris in Minnesota

    Why is it that the majority of the comments have nothing to do with the story? Ah, you must have not all read, instead just wish to chirp.

    You should read the interview with the pilot, it is short, but pretty interesting. I'm sure he could go more in depth his descriptions, but that man has one important job, there's a lot of weight on those shoulders.

    January 15, 2009 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  20. BIGDAN

    It is a grand bird and fits the profile of America with the greatest of honor.

    This is a symobal of America and what it can do/////


    ps no matter who Rides in it.....

    January 15, 2009 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  21. Josh

    No camera crews are allowed in the sensitive areas of the aircraft. Secondly, Air Force One is the only one of it's kind and as such, NOTHING is stock on it. Specs are not only unpublished but kept secure. Thirdly, I'm sure no one, much less wolf Blitzer, would be allowed to film or see anything that would jeopardize the safety and security of our president.

    January 15, 2009 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  22. complements

    why didn't these losers that think they are better than Bush, run for president?

    January 15, 2009 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  23. California Gold

    I think interviewing any of the pilots would be fascinating. Aircraft is interesting and has a cool factor. No doubt about it. But talking to the pilots and crew and listening to their stories would be fascinating!

    January 15, 2009 06:19 pm at 6:19 pm |
  24. LM75

    Bush is arrogant, hardheaded, and not too bright. Probably worst president in past 100 years.

    January 15, 2009 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  25. boered1

    this is NEWS!?!

    Come on CNN TRY JUST TRY to actually be a NEWS organization if only for a day, no stories about interior decorating, or the nifty new Presidential Limo or how cool Air Force 1 is! I know you have to get all REAL news approved by your controllers and the liar hillary ahs been busy lately but TRY PLEASE

    January 15, 2009 06:32 pm at 6:32 pm |
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