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Air Force One crew member speaks to Rotary Club; Shares stories on Clinton and Bush

By Staff | Oct 9, 2008

Bill Thomas has been there when history was written; those indelible moments in the annals of American chronology, where the pride, strength and failures of the nation were on stage for the world to see.

As a communications officer on Air Force One, Thomas was in Sarasota with President George W. Bush when the World Trade Center was attacked. He was there when the president flew over New Orleans to surgery the damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Thomas told those types of stories from his 12 years on Air Force One with the Cape Rotary Club on Tuesday at La Venezia, sharing stories and information about the various planes that serve as Air Force One.

“Everybody wants to be there,” he said of the Air Force One crew. “Everybody wants to fulfill the mission. It’s a zero fail mission, you never want to tell the president, ‘No.'”

He spent six years with Bill Clinton and six with Bush, touching down on every continent with the exception of Antarctica, even though he came very close.

He had the opportunity to meet and greet celebrities Steven Speilberg and Harrison Ford aboard Air Force One, the latter doing research for a movie.

He said he spent a lot of time on the West Coast and met a lot of celebrities while flying with Clinton, and that the Clintons had no “primary home” in Arkansas, instead spending their downtime in places like Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island.

It was during his time with Bush, of course, that he witnessed firsthand some of those now infamous moments in American history.

As a crew member, Thomas said it was important during those moments to separate emotion from the task at hand.

“It was very surreal,” Thomas said of those initial moments during Sept. 11, 2001. “But for us, the crew was very professional, very calm. We have very specific guidelines and procedures in place.”

Thomas and his family have been in the Cape now for about two years. He “retired” from Air Force One at the age of 37, moving into the private sector to open his own travel agency that specializes in tropical destinations.

He said his priorities “shifted” after his time on Air Force One, focusing on family and business.

Still, being apart of that history was “awesome” for Thomas, even when Bush circled a devastated New Orleans.

“It was a more humbling experience than anything,” he said of Air Force One. “Being just a small player is this big puzzle. It’s an honor to be a part of that, making it a success.”