Colonel Ray “Frenchy” L’Heureux flew the last four presidents during his time piloting Marine One. He sat down with us to discuss his amazing career.
History Reader: You are retired now, but at one point, you were flying possibly the most recognized helicopter in the United States of America. Can you please tell us briefly the path that took you from a boy building model airplanes to commanding Marine One?
Ray L’Heureux: I always had the romantic vision of flying . . . I glamorized airline pilots of the day and wanted that life. I joined the military in that it was the only avenue available to me in order to gain the experience and training needed to make a run for any flying job on the civilian side. Funny thing happened however, it became clear to me that I joined a fraternity . . . I fell in love with the mission and what the Marine Corps stood for. Add to that the friends and shipmates I served with and the deployments and experiences I had kept me in the Marine Corps. Good bosses, good mentors, and good assignments lined me up for consideration to be selected to command HMX-1. It’s amazing even today how that trajectory manifested itself.
HR: How did Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) come about?
RL: Marine Corps Helicopter Aviation was in its infancy in the late 1940’s. It was post WWII and Helicopter Aviation was brand new—experimental in fact. The Marine Corps saw the utility of helicopters in a combat role and stood up HMX-1 in 1947. The “X” in HMX-1 is experimental—the roots of the squadron is purely that.
HR: What was it like the first time you flew a president? What was going through your mind?
RL: The first time you fly a president—in this case as a co-pilot, is really the pinnacle of reaching the point of culmination for all the training you have gone through for this very moment — “Please Lord don’t let me F%#@ this up!”—is what is going through your mind. The real thrill I think, and this goes for everyone that has been in the left seat of Marine One is that first landing on the South Lawn of The White House. Exhilarating! Historic! The White House!!!
Image is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
HR: What is your favorite story from your time commanding Marine One?
RL: There are so many, countless in fact. Many of those stories are anecdotal and revolve around different “lifts” or time at Camp David and Crawford Texas. I suppose one of the iconic moments as a commander of a very hard working and dedicated squadron, was when President Bush came to the Squadron to say thank you and goodbye to HMX-1. First president to ever do so in the history of the Squadron. He was energized, the Marines were very excited and proud, and the president hung around for quite some time after his remarks and took photos with the Marines . . . very gracious. I could not have been more proud to introduce (none needed actually) the President of The United States to my Marines in their “house.” On the flight back from Quantico to the White House, the president came into the cockpit to tell me just how much he enjoyed his time with the Marines. “Frenchman, that was awesome. Thank you so much.” It’s a great story in that involved the entire command.
HR: What particular flight or moment sticks out as being the most challenging? How did you overcome it?
RL: They are all challenging. Some more than others. Even the routine ones can be challenging if conditions are not optimum. This is a global mission, so even the flights in unfamiliar territory can add to that challenge. But I think if you ask any pilot, no matter what kind of machine he or she flies, the challenge that adds most friction to any mission is weather. And when weather gets bad, your fuel gauges get very big as well.
There was one particular flight that was on the back side of a Crawford, Texas, visit early in 2009. It was a fundraiser in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, at a golf course whose name escapes me at the moment—there are a few there. We were positioned at Charleston AFB, waiting for Air Force One to marry up with Marine One, and we would fly the president from there to Kiawah Island. Flying by helicopter is an extremely preferred mode of transport in this case because the motorcade would take forty-five minutes or more because of the network of roads and not having a direct route to the event. The flight aboard Marine One would take fifteen minutes.
The event itself was a quick one, and it was during dusk into evening. Because of the quick event and our own weather policy, I had to make the “weather call” two hours in advance of the flight out of there—before Marine One even had the president on board for the flight to Kiawah. Unorthodox, but necessary. The weather was OK for the flight out—low ceiling but plenty of visibility—and it was still light out. There was a line of storms coming in from the ocean and were forecasted to be significant, but we were supposed to be out of there before they hit the coast. Not too comforting as we landed on the driving range and the skies to the east looked formidable. The motorcade took the president to the event, and I had already told the Military Aide (milaide) that the weather was not too good. I had already made a “good” weather call for the way back, but said to stay tuned, because it could change.
The Milaide emphasized that they DID NOT want to motorcade back so to stay in touch and let him know if they had to bolt early. Roger that! My team of pilots and I quickly retreated to the pro shop, and asked to get on to a computer in the office. I was studying every radar picture of the area I could, and I had another pilot calling our weather folks at Camp David to get another perspective as to what they were seeing. The radar picture was ugly, and once we selected the animated feature to ascertain how fast it was moving, it was clear we were in trouble. The line of storms were moving in quicker than forecasted. It was apparent that the leading edge of the line of storms would hit the coast before or at the scheduled time of departure. And it would be dark. Great!
I studied the radar, spoke with forecasters, and determined that we had to get the president on board earlier than scheduled. The radar depicted heavy rain, and behind it, a whole lot of red—which is real bad. I was not too worried about the green—rain still offered some visibility. The red and yellow scares the shit out of ANY pilot. I looked at the worst part of the storm and animated the picture to get a best “no later than” time to get out of there, and then did the math for the motorcade trip back to the helicopter . . . and then I called the Milaide. I was very pointed. I stated that if the president was on board any later than “X” they would have to travel by motorcade. Not what they wanted to do. Milaide said let me call you back. I know now that he spoke to the staff lead at the event, who spoke to the president, which was basically “we need to leave in ten minutes if we want to fly out of here, otherwise we are driving.”
The president wrapped it up, we got notification the motorcade was heading our way, and we got all the aircraft engines up and were ready to go. It was pouring rain already. It was black—and rainy—with very little ambient lighting. I had no idea what were about to fly into. The weather reporters were still presenting workable ceilings and visibility, but you would never know it from where we were sitting. I was nervous as heck and although not second guessing my decision, I knew I was on the cusp of making a bad one.
The motorcade pulled up close, and you could see the wheels sinking into the grass. The president bounded over as best he could—holding an umbrella for the First Lady—he got on board and gave me one of those looks—“lets get out of here”— the rain was heavy, my rotors were spinning, and I lifted off into the inky blackness. As I turned to the west and headed towards Charleston, you cannot imagine my relief as the city lights shown in the distance like a beacon. The ceiling and visibility were ok—we had a direct route of flight to the airport—and the rest of the flight was uneventful, if not wet. We married back up to Air Force One, and as the president got off the aircraft, he just grabbed my shoulder and said,“Thanks Frenchman,” and again gave me one of those looks. After all, the President was a fighter pilot. He knows.
HR: Were any of the presidents nervous fliers? Can you say who?
RL: I can’t say that any of them were nervous flyers. I think they all instinctively knew that they were flying with the very best this country can offer.
HR: I know much of the helicopters used to fly the president is classified, but can you share any inside knowledge with us about the helicopters themselves? What makes them so unique?
RL: What makes these helicopters so unique, other than the mission equipment which I cannot talk about, is that they fly the President of The United States of America. There is no doubt in my mind that there are more privately owned helicopters that could be considered more palatial, but these iconic “white tops” represent the United States of America. They are the most recognizable helicopters in the world, and we are the ONLY nation on the planet that supports its Head of State, Chief Executive, and Commander in Chief with executive helicopter support, globally. That in itself is unique. The U.S. presence alone is stunning. And to see the gleaming paint on Air Force One, or Marine One, with the Seal of the President of the United States, and the words “United States of America” emblazoned on the side of the aircraft . . . it makes you proud to be an American . . . especially when overseas.
HR: What do you think people would find the most surprising about flying Marine One?
Just how quiet and smooth it is. There are specifically designed mechanical components coupled with tons of soundproofing technology that makes these aircraft a dream to fly—and fly aboard. Very smooth!
COLONEL RAY “FRENCHY” L’HEUREUX joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1980. In 1991, he joined HMX-1 flying Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In 2006, he became Commanding Officer flying Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He retired in 2011. His latest book is Inside Marine One:Four U.S. Presidents, One Proud Marine, and the World’s Most Amazing Helicopter.