In Dec. 1947, the Marine Corps organized Marine Helicopter Squadron One to test how to use helicopter support with airborne ship-to-shore troop movement in its amphibious assault tactics. Since that time, HMX-1 has performed many tasks throughout its long history as the Corps’ first helicopter squadron.
As helicopters became firmly entrenched in Marine warfighting doctrine, HMX-1’s mission evolved into testing new systems and products destined for the Fleet Marine Force. Today, HMX-1 has the very special mission of flying the president of the United States in support of his daily activities.
In September 1957, nearly 10 years after HMX-1 began, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was called back to the White House and needed a quick ride from his summer home in Rhode Island. The regular route by ferry across Narragansett Bay to the waiting presidential airplane, which would soon become Air Force One, would have taken too long. He instructed his staff to find an alternative way.
The president’s staff located HMX-1 nearby conducting training and asked if they could fly the president to the waiting Air Force One. It was later declared safe to land helicopters on the south lawn of the White House, and as a result, the call sign “Marine One” was created, and the squadron assigned specifically for the rapid transportation of the United States president.
“Our primary job is the safe and timely transportation of the president of the United States,” said Col. John K. Faircloth Jr., Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron One commanding officer at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. “That responsibility occurs anywhere in the world. If the president is traveling, we’re going to be on site to support him.”
I was here on September 11 and helped transport President Bush to and from the White House.
Faircloth said Marine One is always looking for new pilots.
“We send out a request and accept applications,” Faircloth said. “Pilots don’t get orders here, unless they have volunteered.”
The officer selection process for Marine One pilots starts with an initial group of fleet aviators who have applied for the position.
“Most of the pilots have completed several combat deployments,” said Capt. John Lawton, Marine One pilot. “When we’ve reached a point where we have enough experience and flight hours, we can be considered for Marine One.”
When a pilot is accepted to join the Marine One team, based on experience and recommendation from peers and past command, they go through a rigorous security screening. Because the job entails presidential support, prospective pilots will also get a detailed background check, Faircloth said.
Lawton has been with Marine One for about two years and has flown the president more than a dozen times to many locations. He said it adds pressure to have the president on board but gets easier when you learn to work with your team; everyone knows their job well.
After a pilot receives orders and reports in, the next steps involve eight to twelve months of training on the three types of helicopters in the HMX-1 fleet: the VH-3D Sea king, VH-60N Nighthawk, and the CH-46 Sea Knight. With their training completed, pilots undergo a few more months of additional operations and mission training or as pilot on support missions that include flying the vice president and foreign dignitaries around the nation’s capitol before being qualified to serve on presidential missions.
Pilots, however, are not the only staff that supports the mission of Marine One.
HMX-1 is comprised of more than 700 Marines and Sailors in more than 60 different job fields, most of whom receive orders to HMX-1 based on need.
“A vast majority of our Marines are young lance corporals straight out of military occupational school,” Faircloth said.
Marines are issued orders to serve as a member of HMX-1 based on the needs of the Marine Corps at that time. They can expect to serve a year on the flight crew of Marine One. Unlike pilots who are trained to fly all three helicopters, Marine One crew chiefs are offered the option to select the type of helicopter they want to serve with, then train and work specifically on that aircraft. Before being selected as a Marine Once crew chief, they work other essential support missions for the president.
The helicopter crew chief assists the pilots with lift off and landings, ensuring a safe and successful fight whether the operations are at the White House or overseas. They are tasked with the safety of the crew as well as the president. Maintaining and keeping the aircraft in a high state of readiness is another aspect of their job.
Regardless of the responsibility, these Marines ensure the highest standards of excellence on the presidential aircraft they operate.
Crew chiefs that work hard, meet the high standards required, and have sufficient quality experience, are eligible for recommendation by their superiors to become Marine One crew chiefs.
“We’re the eyes that look at that plane,” said Staff Sgt. Jacob Ansbach, a Marine One crew chief since Feb. 2011. “I take pride in maintaining the aircraft.”
Although crew chiefs stay four years with HMX-1, they will only serve one of those years with Marine One. It affords other Marines the opportunity, Ansbach said.
If you have what it takes, you’ll be looked at, said Master Sgt. Ardell Brown, who served in the squadron during the President Clinton and President Bush administrations and was recently selected for a second tour as the communications chief with HMX-1.
“You’re right at the tip of the spear when it comes to world events,” Brown said. “I was here on September 11 and helped transport President Bush to and from the White House.”
Serving on Marine One carries a sense of pride, dedication and tradition that is unique to the unit. Presidential letters of appreciation honoring HMX-1, adorn the walls of the hangar corridors, along with photos of the Marines and helicopters in action. The Marines’ hard work does not go unnoticed.
When boarding and leaving the aircraft, the president usually thanks the Marine One crew for the ride and shakes their hands, Lawton said. It’s all worth it then.
The crew believes the honor of working on Marine One endures long after the one year of service in the unit.”HMX-1 is a team of Marines performing a very special mission,” Faircloth said. “It’s an honor for all of us to do it.”