Before every flight for 13 years, steward John L. Haigh would walk around the jet and remind his crew that no matter what was on their minds, their first and foremost duty was to their passengers.
That his passengers were usually presidents, first families and the upper echelons of the federal government helped drive that point home.
“I used to go through the airplane five minutes before the president arrived and tell everyone, ‘Do a checkup from your neck up. It doesn’t matter if you had a fight with your wife before you got here, or car trouble … it’s time to go to work,’” said retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Haigh, 68, of Export, who served as a steward aboard Air Force One under three presidents.
“If you didn’t leave that airplane spoiled and pampered, we weren’t doing our job,” he said.
On Thursday night, Haigh entertained about 50 people at the Vincentian de Marillac nursing home in Stanton Heights, where he is a longtime volunteer, with an hourlong slideshow. He recounted dozens of encounters and anecdotes from his years of ferrying presidents and first ladies, high-ranking government officials and world leaders around the globe.
“He’s really great,” said resident Thomas Hennen, 92, who had heard Haigh speak before. “He has so many interesting, funny stories.”
Haigh said he left Pennsylvania with a yearning to travel, so he enlisted in the Air Force in September 1960. There wasn’t much traveling the first few years – he was stuck in a desk job – but eventually he and a friend transferred to VIP flights out of Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. Haigh worked his way up to the backup planes for Air Force One, and then to the presidential aircraft.
“For a while, I flew with everybody but the president,” he said. To get assigned to Air Force One, “you had to have a lot of flying experience, and you had to be able to smile after a very long day.”
After earning his keep on campaign trips, including 40 states in eight months with then-Vice President Gerald Ford, he was promoted to the presidential flights.
Beginning in the final months of President Carter’s term, Haigh was a regular steward who spent most of his time at the back of the plane – then a Boeing 707. He mostly served the press corps and lower levels of the White House staff; Carter was more introverted than his successors and seldom ventured toward the rear of the plane, Haigh said.
Under President Reagan, who often toasted departing staff and crew with champagne, Haigh became chief steward, which made him responsible for coordinating all the creature comforts aboard Air Force One. One task was to get lists from White House chefs of VIP passengers’ likes and dislikes, as well as meals recently served in the White House, so there would always be variety in the presidential diet.
Reagan was particularly fond of Simi Valley Cabernet, so the crew always kept it on board. He also had a favorite bourbon that traveled everywhere with the plane, but was never opened, said Haigh, adding that Reagan’s favorite meal was meat loaf and macaroni and cheese.
President George H.W. Bush’s infamous distaste for broccoli followed him into the air: Air Force One never carried, cooked or served it during his term.
“He said: ‘Don’t let it on my airplane,’” Haigh said. “He didn’t even like the smell of it.”
On extra-long flights – his longest was a 53-hour trip to Jakarta, Indonesia – Haigh’s responsibilities included helping presidents prepare for bed and wake in the morning. He politely declined to say whether any were snorers, sleepwalkers or users of the “snooze” button.
“It was interesting to see them in their most private moments,” he said. “People writing books about presidents, the Secret Service or the CIA would always be asking me for all kinds of dirt. … But no amount of money could make me tarnish the good work I did.”
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