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Air Force enlistee saw history unfold

| Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, 12:02 a.m.
John L. Haigh Sr. answers audience questions Wednesday at Norwin Public Library after a slideshow presentation on his time as the chief steward of Air Force One under presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News

As a teenager growing up in a Fayette County coal mining town during the 1950s, John L. Haigh Sr. did not want to follow his father down into the coal mines for 50 years or join his brother on a job in a steel mill or travel to Cleveland to work in an automotive factory.

Haigh took a different path out of tiny Lambert when he saw a neighbor wearing the sharp blue uniform of the Air Force, a journey that led him to work as steward aboard Air Force One for three presidents — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Haigh, 69, of Murrysville, flew far from the Fayette County of his youth, enlisting in the Air Force in September 1960, and witnessing history around the world in a military career that lasted 30 years.

“They (Air Force) provided the opportunity of a lifetime for me,” Haigh said Thursday at the Westmoreland County Historical Society's annual meeting at its headquarters in Unity.

Haigh entertained about 40 history buffs with tales about the nation's most famous plane and how he served the country's top leaders, the first families, other world leaders and celebrities as they traveled around the world.

For 13 years, from 1979 to 1992, Haigh served as chief steward for presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and was part of Jimmy Carter's Air Force One crew.

He logged almost 10,000 hours serving the presidential administrations, traveling to Europe, Asia and the Mideast.

He got aboard Air Force One after serving on backup planes.

He took astronauts who landed on the moon on a goodwill tour of the world in 1973. He was on the backup plane — the one that had transported President Kennedy's body from Dallas to Washington, after he was assassinated — when President Richard Nixon took a historic trip to the Mideast.

Nixon's vice president, Gerald Ford, was energetic and athletic on the campaign trail.

“Ford was a veritable iron man,” Haigh said.

It was not until mid-1979 that Haigh moved up to Air Force One, serving as a steward who spent most of his time in the rear of the plane for Carter and never interacting with the president.

But he was with Carter the day of Reagan's inauguration in January 1981 and was on the plane that took Carter to Germany to meet the 52 former hostages who had just been released from Iran after 444 days of captivity.

Haigh surprised the audience by saying it was Carter's people who consumed the most alcohol aboard Air Force One during his time on the plane. President Reagan, on the other hand, abstained from alcohol, with the exception of an occasional drink of champagne, particularly when toasting a crew member who would be leaving Air Force One,

Haigh had great admiration for President Reagan, reading a poem he wrote for the 40th president at the end of his term in which he was “proud to be in the shadow of greatness.”

While Haigh regaled the audience with stories of the trips, he did not offer any headline-grabbing gossip.

“I've been asked for dirt and I would not do it for any money,” said Haigh, who is in the process of publishing a book about his experiences.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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