Albertazzie, former Air Force One pilot, Berkeley County businessman, dies at 88

August 17, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • Albertazzie

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Martinsburg Mayor George Karos remembered the late Col. Ralph Albertazzie as an inventive businessman, staunch Republican and true gentleman.

"He used to come in the drugstore all the time — and tried to get me to change (political) parties," Karos recalled Tuesday.

Albertazzie, who piloted Air Force One for President Richard Nixon, died at his home in Berkeley County, media outlets reported Monday.

He was 88.

Brown Funeral Home in Martinsburg said Wednesday that no service will be held. The family will mourn privately and honor Albertazzie’s request that his ashes be spread over the hills of West Virginia, The Associated Press reported.

Albertazzie wrote two books inspired by his years flying the president, the novel "Hostage One" and the nonfiction piece "The Flying White House: The Story of Air Force One."

Karos, a conservative Democrat, said he will never forget the day Albertazzie gave him a signed copy of the latter.

"I have it downstairs in my library," Karos said in a telephone interview from his home in Martinsburg.

Albertazzie grew up in Cassville, W.Va., in Monongalia County, and said in a 2003 interview that he hitchhiked to an airport near Morgantown, W.Va., and washed planes in exchange for flying lessons.

He graduated from Morgantown High School and attended West Virginia University but quit to enlist in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He also served in Korea and Vietnam.

He was assigned to fly Air Force One shortly after Nixon's inauguration in 1969, and Albertazzie was at the controls as Nixon made several historic journeys to China.

When Nixon resigned five years later, Albertazzie flew him for the last time — home to California.

Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, said Albertazzie was one of his constituents when he was elected to the House of Delegates in 1984.

"He contributed to my campaign," said Overington, who described Albertazzie as a "terrific person."

Overington also recalled Albertazzie being appointed by former Gov. Arch Moore Jr. to serve as West Virginia's commerce commissioner. Albertazzie ran for governor in 1976, but lost in the Republican primary to Gov. Cecil Underwood, according to historical accounts.

Moore could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

Karos and Overington recalled Albertazzie's business ventures, which included opening a truck stop and a television station.

The Panhandle 76 truck stop was opened in 1978 at what is now exit 20 off Interstate 81 for Spring Mills, according to reports published in The Herald-Mail.

The business closed in the mid-1990s and has since been redeveloped. It is now the site of the Spring Mills Towne Center.

Albertazzie also started the television station WYVN: Your Valley News in Martinsburg, a venture that Karos said was unthinkable at the time.

"He came up with a lot of new ideas," Karos said.

In a 1998 interview with The Herald-Mail about his experiences flying Air Force One, Albertazzie said he flew Nixon about 275,000 miles, including the day the president resigned the presidency in disgrace and flew home to San Clemente, Calif., on Aug. 9, 1974.

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.

Albertazzie said 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.

He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in December 1974.

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