Great Ride, Frenchy
That’s what President George W. Bush wrote on an autographed photo to Ray L’Heureux of Honolulu, personal pilot for Bush 2 and three other U.S. presidents, plus the pope, aboard Marine One
Not many of us get to live out our childhood fantasies, and Ray L’Heureux was no exception. As a young man growing up in Massachusetts, he dreamed of being a commercial airline pilot. He would watch their contrails as they soared over his home and spend hours slumped over intricate models of DC-10s, dreaming of being at the helm of a big bird crisscrossing this country.
But the closest he ever got to the cockpit on a commercial flight was riding in first class, so he had to make do with the next best thing to flying Joe and Jane Bag-o-Donuts home for the holidays: being a personal pilot for four leaders of the free world plus the pope.
The incredible tale of how L’Heureux – the name means happy in French – went from being financially squeezed out of flight school to escorting presidents is all laid out in his new book Inside Marine One that will be on bookshelves both digital and tactile May 27.
“It was a fun life, when you are flying around D.C. and you get to hook a right turn and land in the backyard of the White House. You never get sick of that,” says L’Heureux, who now serves here as state Department of Education assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services.
His rise to the commander of HMX-1, the Presidential Helicopter Squadron One, began with the greatest disappointment of his life. His dreams of being an airline pilot ran into the reality of the sheer expense of learning to do so at Nathaniel Hawthorne College in New Hampshire.
The money he had saved quickly evaporated, and his job waiting tables for a dollar an hour plus tips couldn’t replenish his flight account fast enough to cover the $100-an-hour cost of flying, so he began to take notice of the Marine recruiter on campus and the benefits the Corps could provide.
Once enlisted, he dedicated himself to duty and country, and quickly rose through the ranks, learning to fly all variety of aircraft before settling into the chopper program. But his life path became clear to him in the spring of 1988 with the arrival of President Ronald Reagan at Air Station Tustin in southern California.
Seeing the classic image of the white-topped Marine One landing in front of him cemented his desire to be one of those Marines inside the ropes.
“I was a goner, completely captivated by the choreography of the aircraft hovering and landing in perfect synchronicity,” writes L’Heureux. “That’s when I knew I wanted to join whatever club they were in.”
He served two tours with HMX-1. The first bridged the years between Bush Sr. and Clinton, where he got to experience flying the last two leaders of the 20th century wherever they needed to go. Despite the disparate politics of these two, L’Heureux’s job didn’t change.
“You learn in that job to be apolitical,” says L’Heureux, who spent the years between tours at the White House stationed here on Oahu. “When you are sitting around at home drinking with your buds, you can certainly have your opinions. But when you are in that job, you know you are providing a service, and you are so close to the seat of power that it doesn’t matter who is in that chair. It is the cool factor of that alone that allows you to be apolitical.”
The view from his vantage point may be the most interesting part of this autobiography, as he captures the seriousness of the task at hand as we see it spelled out on the faces of the HMX-1 crew whenever they are on camera, juxtaposed with the almost childlike glee that L’Heureux takes in finding himself in that position.
The stories oscillate from the intricacies of moving a unit of helicopters carrying the nation’s most precious payload, to genuine human interaction, including playing wolleyball (volleyball confined to a racquetball court) with Bush Sr., or his annoyance with the Clintons over their disregard for schedules.
These are the kinds of yarns that, if the guy next to you at the bar started telling them to you, shaking your head in dis-belief would be your only natural response.
You flew the Pope into Mile High Stadium in Denver and he gave you a rosary? Yeah, sure.
President George W. Bush likes to make jokes about the tattoo on your tuches? Barkeep, pour me another one.
You flew Presidents Obama and Clinton on separate occasions into Normandy to celebrate the anniversaries of DDay? Check, please.
Yet all these stories are real and laid out in this book, an extraordinary life lived out by an ordinary man. He is spending this week in New York doing media days for the launch of his book, before returning to the Islands to deal with new school bus schedules and getting our kids the A/C they need from the DOE.
His stories are too numerous to tell all of them here, thus the book. But perhaps one of the most amusing of his life came the first time he met President George W. Bush in 2007, when he took command of HMX-1.
He had flown the president up to Camp David for a vacation and was himself relaxing in the pilot’s cabin, when one of the White House aides mentioned to the president that his new pilot was pretty fit. The president, who is a avid mountain biker, had his interest piqued.
“Colonels aren’t known for being fit; they are older and near the end of their career,” says L’Heureux, who was and is an avid runner and triathlete. “The president loves challenges. Numerous times he would bring guys on the ride just so he could bury them. So I got a call that the president wanted me to meet him at his house tomorrow morning for ‘bike ops,’ they called it.”