Editor's Desk: February/March 2008

In our August/September 2004 issue, we ran stories about President George W. Bush and Air Force One and the Boeing 757 Senator John Kerry had chartered for his campaign. To maintain nonpartisanship, we split the cover to feature separate photos of both men standing outside their respective airplanes.

One reader called me about the pictures. He said he did not like the way the presidential seal hanging from the door of Air Force One looked as if it were fastened to Kerry's airplane. I explained that none of us had noticed this and that as a publication we are politically neutral.

I mention this now because I don't want to create an impression of bias with this issue and the following comments. I'm sure you've noticed James Carville on our cover. A friend of both former President Bill Clinton and presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton, Carville has some interesting things to say about politics. However, we interviewed him mainly because he's also quite a fan of business aviation.

We're also running an article that's a must-read if you are thinking about allowing candidates and government officials to use your aircraft. We've illustrated this story with a photo of former President Richard Nixon, only because it shows him on an airplane. Again, this was a completely apolitical decision.

Finally, we noted that Senator Clinton made use of a Bell 222 helicopter-reportedly dubbed by her staff the "Hill-a-copter"-during her campaign blitz in Iowa. This reminded me of the first-ever use of a helicopter during a political campaign, which happened in 1948. Texas Congressman Lyndon Johnson rode along in a Bell 47D piloted by a Bell Helicopter test and demonstration pilot named Joe Mashman. I learned about this from Mashman himself, while I interviewed him before writing his biography.

LBJ had seen a Bell 47 demonstrated in Washington and asked his friend, Stuart Symington, the Secretary of the Air Force, to contact Bell Helicopter. Figuring that a senatorial race would be great publicity for his new aircraft (certified just two years earlier), company founder Larry Bell readily put a Model 47 at LBJ's disposal. This was long before the current rules about campaign financing.
Few people had seen a helicopter before. When asked what the proper name of the machine was, LBJ responded, "Joe says it's a 'HELL-i-copter,' but the Baptists call it a 'HEE-leo-copter'." The press called it "The Johnson City Windmill."

Johnson finished second in the main election, but beat his opponent in the runoff by 87 votes, not so much because of the Bell 47, but because he had apparently "stolen" many thousands of votes, according to the book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson-Means of Ascent, by Robert Caro. Of course, LBJ went on to become Vice President under John F. Kennedy and then President after Kennedy was killed.

Ironically, Johnson almost didn't make it past that 1948 campaign. As Mashman told it, "We were flying over the main street in Marshall at about 20 to 30 feet, when all of a sudden we just dropped like a brick, lost all lift. I felt completely helpless. We hit hard, landing between a couple of parked cars, then bounced back in the air over one car. I regained control and continued to our intended landing spot. LBJ turned to me and said, "Joe, back there wasn't where you wanted to land, was it?' I said, "No, no, we just had a little problem.'"

LBJ and Mashman had experienced "settling with power," a phenomenon unique to rotary-wing aircraft and little-known at that time. Helicopter pilots now learn how to avoid this potentially lethal flight condition, but as recently as 2000 it was cited as a main cause in the fatal accident of a military V-22 tiltrotor.

According to several news reports, the Clinton "Hill-a-copter" had made an "emergency" or "forced" landing on December 17 (coincidentally, the 104th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight). In fact, this was really just a precautionary landing, done intentionally by the pilot because of low visibility.

Could history be reinventing itself? Let me make two things perfectly clear: I make no predictions and this publication is politically neutral. So please don't call me to complain about this issue's cover.

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