Former chief steward, a Fayette native, shares stories from aboard Air Force One
By Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Published: Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
As a teenager in the tiny Fayette County coal-mining village of Lambert, John L. Haigh Sr. dreamed of seeing the world.
He never expected that he would jet from continent to continent alongside the president of the United States.
Now 70, retired Chief Master Sgt. Haigh reflects on his career as chief steward of Air Force One in his new book, “Air Force One: An Honor, Privilege, and Pleasure to Serve.”
“I just wanted to travel, see the world and serve my country,” Haigh said. “I got to travel and wow — (I had) no idea where I'd end up.”
Adorning Haigh's Murrysville home are reminders of his work — framed sketches of the White House, a scale model of Air Force One, a package of M&M candies emblazoned with the presidential seal.
He cherishes a photograph of President George H.W. Bush signed: “To John Haigh, horseshoe champ, patriot, friend. Best wishes, George Bush.” The president was referring to Haigh's prowess in a 1989 horseshoe tournament on the White House lawn.
Haigh flew with Presidents Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, tending to the safety and comfort of the passengers aboard the airplane. He memorized each president's favorite foods and the plane's specifications.
Haigh's career began when he enlisted in the Air Force and volunteered for flying duty. Eventually, he was accepted into the VIP program in which “just about every trip was part of history,” he said.
Haigh joined the Air Force One crew in 1979 and served until 1992, when he retired. He started as a flight steward working in the back of the plane with the press corps, then was promoted to deputy chief steward and, finally, to chief steward of Air Force One.
Work shuttled him throughout the United States and across the world, visiting Turkey, Ireland, Australia, Brazil and more in the company of leaders including Walter Mondale, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
Haigh observed world policy makers for years. “The really good politicians remember (your) name and look you in the eye,” he said.
Some have tried to extract political gossip from Haigh, but he refuses to “contribute to trash.”
“Each of the presidents and their families are people like you and I, who did extraordinary things to be elected,” Haigh said.
Regardless of politics, they're “good people,” he said.
To publish his book, Haigh combed through years of notes documenting his experience aboard the iconic aircraft, which measures 4,000 square feet and can seat up to 100 people.
His duties aboard the plane ranged from pressing suits to passing out Air Force One note pads to the press corps to tracking down requests for items such as hair pins or root beer barrel candies — “just like the valets at the White House,” Haigh said.
Haigh kept a list of each First Family's likes and dislikes, so crew could tailor the in-flight menu to their tastes.
“It's true,” he said, “President Bush did not like broccoli. He said ‘I had to eat it as a youngster but do not have to eat it as president.' ”
President Bush snacked on pork rinds and popcorn. President Reagan liked meatloaf and macaroni and cheese. President Carter fancied stuffed pork chops and relishes.
“We served everything from hot dogs to Beef Wellington,” he said.
The behemoth plane, which today costs $179,750 per hour to operate, houses space for communication operators, a navigator, the press secretary, senior staff, speechwriters and the press corps. It features bedroom suites, closets, a medical room, a massage table, storage for up to 2,000 meals, a built-in luggage conveyer belt, a shower, a vanity and a large conference room.
“Just imagine a home of 4,000 square feet with wings on it,” Haigh said. “Pretty much home away from home.”
Today, Haigh, a father and grandfather, is on the local and national speech circuit, rehashing his book's account of the history he witnessed.
President Bush endorsed the book and is quoted on the book jacket, saying: “His wonderful book will be a guide for his successors, and for everyone else ... a fascinating read.”
“It truly was an honor, privilege and a pleasure to serve the First Families on Air Force One,” Haigh said.
Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646.
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