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Memories of piloting presidents vivid

May 21, 1998|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - This week an old Boeing 707 jetliner makes its final flight to an Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio, signaling the end of a career for a plane that flew presidents for 36 years and stirring memories for a Berkeley County man who flew it.

Air Force One, as the plane was called when the president was on board, was known by Ralph Albertazzie as "No. 26000" when he was chief pilot for former President Richard Nixon. Albertazzie, 74, began flying Nixon in the fall of 1968, when he was president-elect, and continued doing so throughout his presidency.

Albertazzie was at the controls of another 707 in the presidential fleet on Aug. 9, 1974, the day Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace and flew home to San Clemente, Calif. It was Air Force One until "someplace over Missouri when Gerry Ford was sworn in, then it became just Air Force 27000," Albertazzie said.

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Albertazzie said he flew Nixon about 275,000 miles in the years they were together. On that last day, when Nixon arrived at San Clemente, he asked Albertazzie to pose with him for a photograph.

"He said he wanted to do it because we had flown so many miles together," Albertazzie said.

The plane that goes to the museum this week is the one that brought President John F. Kennedy's body from Dallas back to Washington, D.C., the day he was assassinated. It flew presidents from Kennedy to Clinton and joins other historical presidential planes in the museum at Wright-Patterson Field.

The $8 million jet began service in October 1962. One of its first flights carried Kennedy to Berlin, where he made the famous Cold War speech in which he said, "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner) in the days when the city was behind the Iron Curtain.

That same year the plane set speed records on a flight to Moscow.

On the day it carried Kennedy's body back to Washington, the crew had to remove a bulkhead and several rows of seats. They didn't want the slain president's casket to ride in the cargo hold.

Albertazzie said he had the president's quarters moved from the back to the front of the plane. The ride was smoother there and it was closer to the communications center that served as Nixon's airborne Oval Office, he said.

Albertazzie had an illuminated American flag emblazoned on both sides of the tail.

"TWA had a lighted sign lit on the tails of its planes. I thought we could put a flag on ours," he said.

Albertazzie was born in Morgantown, W.Va., graduated from West Virginia University in 1943 and joined the Army Air Force, where he trained B-17 and B-29 pilots. He flew commercial airliners after the war.

He returned to active duty for the Korean War to fly military transport planes. He stayed in the Air Force and was assigned to the Special Air Mission at Andrews Air Force Base and ended up assigned to Air Force One.

He also flew former Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald Ford while they were in office, and former Presidents Harry S. Truman and Herbert Hoover after they left office, he said.

He said other presidents often came up to the flight deck to chat with him, but Nixon rarely did.

"He stayed back in his quarters unless he wanted some important guest to meet the pilot," he said. "I met Charles de Gaulle, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and (Jordan's) King Hussein while flying Air Force One," he said.

Albertazzie has written two books about his experiences - "The Flying White House," a nonfiction work, and a novel titled "Hostage One."

He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in December 1974, and was appointed state commissioner of commerce by former West Virginia Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr.

He ran for governor of West Virginia in 1976, but lost in the Republican primary. He became a Berkeley County businessman after that.

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