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Mar-a-Lago readied for president’s Marine One helicopter

A military helicopter bearing outgoing President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle flies away from the east side of the U.S. Capitol on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, just after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By SKYLER SWISHER | Sun Sentinel | Published: March 18, 2017

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Marine One is not just another weather chopper South Floridians will start seeing.

The president’s helicopter, can cruise at 150 mph to get the commander in chief to safety.

It flies so smoothly, it’s quiet enough inside to talk in a normal tone of voice.

Marine One could make regular appearances in South Florida now that a landing pad has been completed at President Donald Trump’s winter White House, his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. Instead of taking a motorcade from the airport — and tying up traffic — he can fly, though it’s not yet clear how often that will happen.

Marine One is at the president’s disposal at all times — whether he is traveling overseas in Europe or giving a policy speech in the U.S.

“It’s a mobile Oval Office,” said retired Col. Ray L’Heureux, a former Marine One pilot and commander who has flown four presidents. “It is probably the most impeccably maintained aircraft on the planet.”

Using Marine One and the presidential jet Air Force One, the president can travel 230 miles from the South Lawn of the White House to Midtown Manhattan in an hour, L’Heureux said.

It takes an fleet of dozens of aircraft based in Quantico, Va., to fly the president. Marine One is the call sign used to refer to any of the special military helicopters that carry Trump. With their high-gloss, green and white paint scheme, the helicopters are nicknamed the “white tops.”

Marine One has been a fixture of the presidency since 1957. President Dwight Eisenhower took the first flight on Marine One when he needed to quickly get from his summer home in Newport, R.I., to the White House.

What would have been a two-hour journey was reduced to seven minutes.

Over the years, Marine One has become embedded in presidential history —President Richard Nixon left Washington in the chopper after his resignation.

The president typically doesn’t spend much time on Marine One, L’Heureux said. The longest flight he piloted took only about an hour. Two pilots fly the helicopter, and a crew chief is responsible for maintenance and ensuring the chopper is ready for the president.

The United States is the only nation that flies its own transportation overseas for the head of state, L’Heureux said. A military jumbo jet carries the president’s helicopters and heavily armored limousine.

L’Heureux has landed at Normandy Battlefield in France and Windsor Castle in England. But it’s flying through the nation’s most restricted airspace — past the monuments in Washington — and touching down on the White House lawn that is his most memorable experience.

“It’s probably what I miss most about that job,” said L’Heureux, who wrote a book about his experiences called “Inside Marine One.” “It doesn’t matter if it’s winter, spring, summer or fall — day or night — it never fails to move you.”

Marine One doesn’t fly alone, and a cadre of support aircraft provide protection. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the president’s helicopters were upgraded to allow the president to communicate with anyone he’d need to reach in government, L’Heureux said.

The former pilot declined to discuss Marine One’s security features, which are top secret, but he wasn’t surprised to learn Mar-a-Lago will have a landing site.

“This is absolutely normal and standard procedure for a helicopter pad to be built,” L’Heureux said. “It’s for national security if you have to get him out quickly.”

The landing pad could be used to ferry the president from the Palm Beach International Airport to Mar-a-Lago, or it’s possible it will be used only if the president needs to quickly leave Palm Beach in an emergency, said Kirk Blouin, director of public safety for the town of Palm Beach.

“It certainly gives them more options,” he said.

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©2017 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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