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NEWS | Nov. 23, 2008

To have proudly served an American President

By Col. Mark W. Tillman Presidential Airlift Group commander

With the recent election of a new president, the team at Air Force One will have a new commander and presidential pilot. I will relinquish command to Col. Scott Turner PAG deputy group commander. He will become the presidential pilot for President-elect Obama.

As President Bush's pilot I have seen history being made from my perch up in the cockpit of the VC-25. I commanded AF-1 on Sep. 11, 2001, brought our President and his staff into various war zones on numerous occasions and have been honored to be part of the Air Force One team. 

The team I speak of is a group of dedicated specialists that have a zero-fail mission, but must always remain in the background -- the focus is on the president, not his crew. We have been very successful in our support of the First Family, but we could not have done it without the tremendous support by the 89th Airlift Wing and the 316th Wing. For this, I and the entire AF-1 team are grateful! 

Looking back on the challenges we faced with the escape and evasion of Sep. 11 to the surprise visits to Baghdad and Afghanistan, to the funerals of Presidents Reagan and Ford, all of these historic events left their marks on the American people and the world. 

On Sep. 11, I saw first hand how a nation at war, on their home soil, react to attacks by terrorists. There was confusion in our government, to include our military, but the first responders reacted to the situation and began saving and protecting lives. I saw a President accept information from multiple sources, act as a leader and direct the nation like no other president has. As the day progressed the American people, still stunned, took care of not only their own, but others; and started to rebuild. For months to follow there were thousands of Americans rallying around the President and his plan to defend and rebuild America. It seems as though we have forgotten those days. 

In September of 2003 I was tasked by the President to take him Baghdad to have Thanksgiving dinner with the American servicemen and women. His direction was that no one could know he was out of the country and his arrival into the combat zone must be a surprise to all. The President's concern and additional requirement was that no servicemen could be injured as a result of his being in country. 

Quite the challenge, but as history has shown we were able to pull it off. The key to this mission was that no one knew what they were supporting (to include the President's crew.) The crew and maintainers were told just prior to takeoff the details of the mission. The American servicemen and women on the ground in Baghdad had no idea that the President was about to arrive, but what is significant is that all executed their jobs perfectly because that is how the U.S. military trains. The ability of the U.S. forces to adapt and overcome is what I relied on to keep the mission secret but still guarantee support of the President. 

I have been honored to be President Bush's pilot, and lead a team of dedicated professionals that are like no other. Our President has put us to the test and we have never failed him or the American people. As I retire, I look back on the traits that I learned in my 30 years of service to the United States Air Force. What brought me to the point I am now at is that I was taught to strive for excellence in every endeavor, take responsibility, learn well and develop the expertise to make the hard call knowing there will be times you cannot elevate the decision. Finally, be demanding, but truly take care of the people -- not just Enlisted Personnel Report, but issues that affect quality of life and support of the family. I am proud to have been part of all of your accomplishments ... from the newest Airman to the oldest four-star, I am proud to have been part of the USAF team!