By Michael J. Weiss
September 17, 1979 12:00 PM

Of all the trappings of power of the modern Presidency, none is more tangible and impressive than Air Force One—the sleek, finely tuned Boeing 707 that whisks the Chief Executive anywhere on the globe at 600 miles an hour. Col. Ralph Albertazzie, Richard Nixon’s personal pilot from 1969 to 1974, is one of only eight men to command a President’s plane since FDR first used a Boeing flying boa t for a 1943 meeting in Casablanca with Winston Churchill. Albertazzie, 56, now has investigated the colorful history of presidential aircraft and published The Flying White House: The Story of Air Force One with journalist J. F. terHorst, who served briefly as Gerald Ford’s press secretary. Albertazzie was born in Morgantown, W. Va., and took to the sky in high school, working for a pilot who flew moonshine across the state line. He instructed bomber pilots in World War II, flew troops and supplies in Korea and received the Bronze Star and two Air Force medals for his 25 combat missions in Vietnam. After retiring when Nixon resigned, the colonel served as West Virginia commerce commissioner and now runs a truck stop in Martinsburg. Albertazzie recently shared his memories as both pilot and historian with Michael J. Weiss for PEOPLE.

How many Air Force Ones are there?

Two, both Boeing 707s. SAM (for Special Air Missions) 26000 was built for Kennedy. It now serves as a backup to SAM 27000, which Nixon put into service.

How did the plane come to be known as Air Force One?

Roosevelt had a DC-4 that was nicknamed The Sacred Cow at the hangar in Santa Monica where it was built. Many religious groups took exception to that, so Truman subsequently called his DC-6 the Independence. Eisenhower’s Lockheed Constellation was the Columbine. But in the nuclear age it became crucial to know where the President was at all times, and the signature Air Force One handled that beautifully. It refers not to the plane but to the Chief Executive’s presence on it. Any plane becomes Air Force One when the President steps aboard.

What was your most memorable flight as pilot of Air Force One?

President Nixon’s last flight to San Clemente after he resigned. In the plane’s lounge people were crying. Halfway through the flight Nixon ceased to be President when Gerald Ford took the oath. I don’t think ever again will a President leave office while flying in a plane. Afterwards, Nixon came out of his private compartment and said, “Well! Is everybody enjoying the trip?” No one spoke.

Did you ever have a close call in the air?

Over Syria one time in 1974, four MIGs started chasing us, with Nixon aboard. I immediately dived under them and tried to lose them with hard S-turns. I had my radio officer call Damascus for an explanation. It turned out they were student pilots on an escort mission nobody told us about.

What was the most important decision ever made aboard Air Force One?

Personally, I think it was JFK’s decision to ride in an open car that fateful day in Dallas. It had been raining there, so the intention was to use a bubble canopy on the car. While he was still on the plane, the weather cleared, so Kennedy ordered the canopy removed.

How do Presidents occupy themselves on the airplane?

Eisenhower liked to meet with people, and to play bridge. Kennedy was a poker player, and a great guy for stories about war, girls and politics. Johnson also loved to swap tales. I hasten to add that the convivial atmosphere existed only after work was done. If Presidents were on business, they’d be boning up on every aspect of it.

What were the Presidents’ drinking habits on the plane?

Johnson drank Cutty Sark, and he insisted on a fresh bottle of soda uncapped in front of him. He also had a passion for root beer. One time he ran out and LBJ said to his steward, Master Sgt. Joe Ayres, “Goddamnit, all Air Force bases ought to have ‘rut beah.’ ” And, by golly, they put root beer everywhere LBJ went. Nixon kept 30-year-old Ballantine’s scotch on board, but he and Bebe Rebozo delighted in mixing each other martinis with the cheapest gin you could buy.

Do the presidential children have the run of the plane?

The Kennedy kids did. They loved blowing BBs out of straws and hitting people in the back of the neck. The concern in the cockpit was that the BBs might damage the instruments, so the flight crew used to have the radio operator call and warn them when the children were headed up front. Amy Carter, while very disciplined, apparently asks lots of questions about what is going on in the front of the airplane.

Which President seemed to enjoy Air force One the most?

Nixon was the flyingest President—about 550,000 miles and 28 countries. Johnson, in Hugh Sidey’s phrase, “rode that airplane like a stallion.” He loved to sit up front and chew the fat. But FDR may have been the biggest fan. Roosevelt’s wheelchair was bolted into the cockpit for takeoffs and landings.

Did Nixon ever visit you up front?

Never. In my judgment, he was rather introverted. The cockpit was a totally unfamiliar environment for him; people say he didn’t like to appear in situations where he wasn’t comfortable.

Who had the most fun?

Undoubtedly Truman, who was a prankster. In 1946 he sneaked out of the White House to visit his ailing mother and ordered his pilot to buzz the White House, saying, “Bess’ll love it.” They dove right down to 500 feet and scared the hell out of everybody. Also, Truman had a running feud with Sen. Robert Taft, the Ohio Republican. Every time Truman flew over that state he’d go to the bathroom, flush the toilet and order Hank Myers, the pilot, to dump it.

Have any of the First Ladies displayed a fear of flying?

Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower were white-knuckle flyers. Bess just didn’t like to fly. If she went back to Kansas City she’d go by train. Mamie Eisenhower wasn’t afraid of flying—just afraid of heights.

What was Pat Nixon like?

She was known for her chain-smoking, which she did everywhere but in public. Major Gen. Walter Tkach, the White House physician, was also a heavy smoker, and the stewards used to play a game to see who smoked the most. Tkach invariably won because he’s the only guy I know who could smoke three cigarettes at a time. But Mrs. Nixon was a close second.

Which President made the most drastic alterations to the plane’s interior?

Johnson would make changes after almost every trip. He made the plane so gadget-oriented he could push a button and the desk would change its height. Another button extended or retracted sliding walls. He had Plexiglas panels installed so he could see the full length of the airplane. There were microphones all over the plane so he could share random thoughts with the passengers at any time.

What happened when Nixon came in?

Johnson and his people stripped the plane on their final flight; they took china, glassware, matchbooks—even the executive chair. Everything was gone except for a recording system Johnson had put in that taped all conversations to and from the airplane. Ironically, when I told Nixon it was there he said, “Take it out.”

How much does it cost to operate Air Force One today?

About $3,000 an hour. Fuel costs vary. The 707 burns about 2,000 gallons an hour. A coast-to-coast trip these days would cost about $10,000 for fuel alone.

Isn’t that extravagant?

On the contrary. The airplane has become a symbol of America. I don’t think the President would have accomplished much in world diplomacy without the plane. It’s as vital a tool of the Presidency as the telephone.

What will the next Air Force One be like?

It will probably be a wide-body, like a 747, with twice the room of a 707. It will allow the President to bring a complete and fully equipped staff of aides, advisers, physicians, Secret Service men and press wherever he goes. There will be a real galley, large meeting rooms, a communications center, map and projection facilities—the works. Then you will really have a Flying White House.