Inside Marine One: the chopper pilots who ferry presidents

Maj. David Fitzsimmons and Capt. Steve Gaugler have seen the nation’s capital the way few do.

They’ve gazed at the Washington Monument’s exterior — from about halfway up — and watched the White House grow larger. Normally, flying low through the restricted air space would earn a trip to jail.

But for a select group of Marine Corps pilots, it’s all in a day’s work.

Fitzsimmons and Gaugler belong to Marine Helicopter Squadron One, HMX-1 for short, the famous unit responsible for ferrying the president, vice president, Cabinet members and foreign heads of state.

Both are also Penn State graduates, part of the university’s strong link to the Quantico, Va.-based squadron. Out of 75 pilots, six hold University Park degrees.

Fitzsimmons, Class of 1998, has an even more elite status. He’s one of five senior Marine One command pilots who fly the dark-green Sikorsky VH-3D Sea King and VH-60N Whitehawk helicopters with the president on board.

As a lead pilot or co-pilot, he has guided the gleaming white-topped choppers across the National Mall to the White House South Lawn many times, dropping the 72-foot birds smoothly onto a triangle of small pads protecting the grass.

It’s a familiar routine, but never a routine moment.

“Every time you fly by the Washington Monument and turn right to go to the South Lawn, you get that little tingle in your belly, and you realize not everyone gets to do this,” Fitzsimmons said. “It’s a memorable experience.”

Gaugler, a 1997 graduate, knows the feeling, having followed the path several times in the co-pilot’s seat. Currently, though, he works another job, as a White House liaison officer with Marine One Advance.

Read the full story in the Centre Daily Times