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Mon, May 01, 2006

Gone West: Col. J.B. Swindal, 88

JFK's Air Force One Pilot Flew JFK To Dallas -- JFK And LBJ Back

James Barney Swindal passed away recently, another of the World War II Generation, another retired Colonel whose stories of flying the Hump  and the Berlin Airlift were once the everyday recollections of hundreds, thousands, of Air Force transport pilots. But being a standout even in that august company, he was selected for a special mission. That mission led to his most famous flight -- with a casket for cargo and a grim and shocked load of passengers.

You see, Col. James B. Swindal was the aircraft commander for Air Force One when it had to carry the body of murdered President John F. Kennedy from Dallas to Washington on November 22, 1963. Just before takeoff, in a scene that would reach millions through the pages of LIFE Magazine, the oath of office was administered to Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson by US District Judge Sarah Hughes aboard the plane, with Johnson's wife Lady Bird, and Kennedy's shocked widow Jacqueline standing by.

When Swindal slipped away on April 25th at Cape Canaveral Hospital in Cocoa Beach, FL, from complications from a broken hip, he was 88 years old and one of the last links to that unhappy flight. Jackie Kennedy, LBJ, Judge Hughes all preceded the pilot in death. His Co- Pilot, Lew Hanson, passed away in January. Kennedy's killer and Kennedy's killer's killer are long underground; even LIFE Magazine is vanished into ancient history. Perhaps it is fitting that the last of the figures remaining from those bleak days was a pilot, a man who simply did his duty as best he could.

The impact of the Kennedy assassination roiled the nation like very few events (Pearl Harbor, the Challenger explosion, 9/11) have done. Anyone who was alive then can tell you where he was at the moment he heard. Afterward, the nation descended into a black night of investigations, accusations, recriminations and conspiracy theories. 

But at the time Swindal knew nothing of what was to come, and nothing of what the Kennedy assassination might signify. The idea that a lone crank could have, would have gunned down the photogenic young leader was not on anyone's mind; it seemed that such a terrible crime must have a great significance, and must be backed by a great power or some insidious plan.

There were several orders to start engines, then to stop them. 

Finally the go call was made. Air Force One was given a clearance unique, perhaps, in history. "Air Force One take Northwest O-One left, cleared to Andrews Air Force Base by any route, any altitude."

So when Swindal and crew -- co-pilot Lt. Col. Lew Hanson, and flight engineer CMS Joe Chappelle, launched USAF VC-137C 62-6000 (26000 for short) that afternoon, they were prepared for trouble. They carried much more fuel than they needed, in case they arrived at a Washington under attack; they climbed high to be safe. Attack by whom? Safe from what? Well, who could say? But at 41,000 feet over the American interior, in the shelter of a Boeing jet and the hands of a hand- picked crew, the Presidents old and new were safe as could be from whatever it might be.

The crew had done something else to prepare the airplane for JFK's last flight. "[T]here was no place on Air Force One for a casket, and we sure didn't want to put it in the cargo hold," Swindal recalled for Florida Today in 2003. "But back there in the rear were seats for stewardesses, Secret Service and other passengers. So we unbolted those seats -- about four rows, I'm guessing, at least eight seats -- and made a space about the size of a couch. And there was enough room for people to walk around."

They also had to cut a rear bulkhead, the plane's engineer, Chief Master Sergeant Joe Chappelle, remembered in March, 1998. "We knew we would be bringing the president’s body back on 26000, but we didn’t want to put his casket in the cargo hold. He was the president. But it wouldn’t make the turn through the door of the aircraft. We had to remove a bulkhead near the rear so we could turn it. We also removed two rows of seats. That made an area for the casket to rest. I'll never forget Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson helping us load the casket. It was just a few minutes later he was sworn in as president onboard the aircraft."

When the Presidential bier was loaded aboard the jet, Col. Swindal left his preflight preparations to render his President -- his boss -- one last (or was it?) salute.

Swindal has been a VIP pilot at Andrews AFB for a long time when he was selected, after the 1960 elections, to fly the new President- Elect. Kennedy was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1961, and Swindal remained as his pilot. Swindal's qualifications included 11.500 hours, plus the aforementioned experience flying the great airlifts of the mid-20th Century, the Hump (Himalayas) airlift in the China-Burma-India theater, and the Berlin Airlift in the late forties. You might say his career had been shaped by the same events that shaped Kennedy's. 
(The president was a PT boat skipper in the war, and always was interested in Berlin as a nexus of the Cold War it fell to him to fight).

At first, their mount was a VC-118, a Douglas DC-6 in military VIP trim, but the Air Force had already experimented with Boeing 707s as VIP aircraft. (One of those early 707s, a VC-137B that flew as SAM 970 when not hauling the President, is in Seattle's Museum of Flight today. It was actually the first jet to carry a President, Kennedy). 

But a new era, the Space Age, deserved a new airplane, and in 1962 the Air Force One of the Kennedy and Johnson years was delivered.

Coded SAM (Special Air Mission) 26000 from its Air Force serial number, the plane was only called Air Force One when the President was aboard, but it was reserved for Presidential use, unlike the other planes in the Andrews AFB VIP fleet.

With a paint job created by industrial designer Raymond Loewy and fine-tuned by the aesthetically attuned First Lady, the plane became not just a time management and travel tool, but a flying advertisement for the United States. And James B. Swindal was at home in its left seat. He even told a Chicago Tribune reporter, five years ago, that he turned down chances to go back and enjoy lunch as a guest of the President and First Lady.

"The Kennedys invited me to join them for lunch a couple of times, but I couldn't ever do it. You fellows in the media would've had a field day if I were back there eating steak in the president's dining room and a near-miss occurred."

Kennedy would make sociable visits to the cockpit, but never stay long; a wartime injury left him in constant back pain, and a 707 cockpit doesn't offer room to stand up.

Together, Kennedy, Swindal and SAM 26000 made a number of historic flights. They flew to Berlin in June 1963, where Kennedy roused the spirits of the those in the suddenly walled-off city by declaring, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Language students who smirked at his Hahvahd accent and clunky grammar missed the point, but the people of free Berlin didn't. (Decades later, sister plane 27000 would carry another President to Berlin for another vital Cold War speech).

At Kennedy's funeral at Arlington Cemetery, SAM 26000 conducted an overflight at 1000 feet and dipped its wings in salute. By press time we were unable to determine if Swindal was in the pilot's seat for that mission -- but it sure sounds like something he'd have wanted to do (We know that the other pilot from the Dallas mission, then Lt. Col. Lew Hanson, was on the salute flight).

Afterwards, he flew LBJ several times, but LBJ preferred another pilot, James Cross, and LBJ had a very different style than the Kennedys had done. Swindal moved on to other duties, and retired in 1971 from a job flying a desk in support of Cape Canaveral, to nearby Cape Coral.

Swindal was born into a carpenter's family on August 18, 1917, in West Blocton, Alabama, a tiny village southwest of Birmingham and almost exactly centered in Alabama. He worked in a factory in Birmingham's signature iron industry until Pearl Harbor brought the war to America, and Swindal to the Army Air Corps and adventures in the thin air over the Himalayas and the tense corridors to Berlin.

Many military pilots fly for fun after retirement; Swindal didn't. 

Indeed, he didn't even travel by plane, and only flew as a passenger once after retiring, to go to his brother's funeral in California. He didn't care for not being in charge, family members said. He is survived by his wife, the former Emily Glover; two children; two grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

We said that Swindal was the last significant survivor of that flight, and that's not entirely true. The airplane survives today, and can be seen at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH. SAM 26000 is the crown jewel of a hangar dedicated to Presidential aircraft at the Museum. If you ride the shuttle to the Presidential hangar, you can still see where Swindal's crewmen cut the back bulkhead of 26000.

FMI: www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/annex/an32.htm

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