Flying a Duckbutt for POTUS
It was November, 1974. President Ford was flying to Tokyo for a state visit with Prime Minister Tanaka. At that time, I was assigned to the 41st Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at McClellan AFB, California, flying HC-130Hs. We were tasked to fly a Duckbutt for President Ford between the US mainland and Hawaii.
Precautionary Orbit Escort missions (Duckbutts) involved positioning rescue aircraft at strategic airborne orbit points along a preplanned oceanic route of flight. These Duckbutts primarily supported jet fighters or other single engine aircraft which cross these routes with minimum navigation and communications equipment. The rescue aircraft would be in a position to give immediate assistance at all times. In the old days, any Air Force fighter pilot who flew across one of the oceans was familiar with a Duckbutt.
In those days, transoceanic flights by the President of the United States also called for Duckbutt coverage. This type of mission required that rescue aircraft be airborne and within 30 minutes of the presidential aircraft position at all times.
At one time there were 21 Duckbutt positions in the Pacific and 20 in the Atlantic. (I wish I could tell you how a precautionary orbit got the name of Duckbutt but I do not know.)
On this particular flight I was checking out a new aircraft commander on the intricacies of flying a Duckbutt. Col. Lester C. McClelland was aircraft commander of Air Force One for this flight, serving President Gerald Ford’s administration from 1974 until 1976. He was also aircraft commander of Air Force One during President Jimmy Carter’s administration from 1976 until 1980.
It was Col. McClelland’s policy to ask who the aircraft commander of the Duckbutt aircraft was so he could send an autographed photo of Air Force One. I neglected to tell the new aircraft commander this, so when Air Force One was overhead and checked in with us, he asked for the name of the aircraft commander. Now when you are flying and someone asks for your name it is almost never a good thing. With a stricken look on his face the new AC gave his rank and name.
I mustered up a concerned look on my face and asked him what he thought he had done wrong. After all, it was Air Force One. The rest of the crew caught on and continued the charade all the way back to McClellan AFB.
After we landed and were debriefing, I put the poor guy out of his misery and explained everything to him. Later he received a nice, autographed photo of Air Force One, just like the one I had received earlier.