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Flight to Baghdad: Untold story
- British Airways pilot came close to blowing the secret

As Air Force One headed under a false call sign for its unannounced landing in Iraq on Thursday, the Boeing 747 passed within sight of a British Airways pilot who radioed: “Did I just see Air Force One'”

“Gulfstream 5,” replied Bush’s pilot, Col. Mark Tillman. As one of President George W. Bush’s aides recounted, the British Airways pilot seemed to sense that he was in on a secret and replied archly: “Oh”.

The trip, aimed at boosting soldiers’ morale and steadying Bush’s political standing, had been in the works for weeks, but only a handful of his closest aides knew about it. The chosen few had talked about it only on secure telephone lines.

A senior administration official told reporters that even some members of Bush’s secret service detail believed he was still in Crawford, Texas, getting ready to have his parents over for Thanksgiving. It was just one reflection of the extraordinary preparation — and secrecy — that went into this most unusual presidential trip.

With just a few hours’ notice, seven reporters and photographers — half the size of the rotating pool of journalists that usually flies on Air Force One — had been spirited on Wednesday onto the secluded, secure tarmac at Texas State Technical College in Waco that Bush uses when he is staying at his ranch.

The reporters were forbidden to tell even their families or employers about the trip. They were told they would be handed new cellphones when they landed in Baghdad.

Reporters had previously been told, falsely, that Bush planned to spend Thanksgiving at his Prairie Chapel Ranch, and they were assured that nothing would happen. With Bush’s public schedule blank, most of the regulars on the beat were home with their families.

A few news organisations were keeping a watch they had assumed would be pointless, and the reporters’ idea of adventure was arranging to commandeer the kitchen of the Marriott to try to cook their first bachelor turkey.

The White House had tried to throw journalists off the trail by telling one of them that Bush would be making holiday telephone calls to a few soldiers in Iraq. White House deputy press secretary Claire Buchan announced at a Wednesday briefing in Crawford that Bush would be joined at his Prairie Chapel Ranch by his parents, the former President and first lady.

Bush usually hitches Air Force One by riding from his ranch on the white-topped Marine One chopper. He also gets around in a motorcade of at least a dozen vehicles that includes staff vans, a communications truck and an ambulance.

To slip out unnoticed, neither would do. So Bush was driven to the Waco airstrip in an unmarked vehicle, with only a tiny secret service contingent. As Bush described the scene for reporters afterward: “They pulled up in a plain-looking vehicle with tinted windows. I slipped on a baseball cap, pulled ’er down — as did Condi. We looked like a normal couple,” he said, referring to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

White House communications director Dan Bartlett said: “If you were sitting outside the ranch waiting for the President, you would not have known the President just left.”

This reporter, who represented newspapers in the media pool and provided a download for all his colleagues who could not be there, was first approached about the trip less than four hours before takeoff. I was talking on my cellphone on the front lawn of Crawford Middle School, where the White House sets up a media filing centre in the gymnasium, 11 km down the road from Bush’s ranch. Steve Atkiss, a young advance official, beckoned for me to climb into his mammoth white rented Dodge pickup.

Atkiss drove a few blocks to a concealed parking lot and told me to step out, that someone wanted to talk to me. Bartlett stepped out of his car, smiling mischievously at the surprise meeting.

“I have news,” he said. “The President is going to Baghdad.”

He said that I was going, but that I could not tell my employer or family what was up. Atkiss told me I should get changed and meet him in an hour and 45 minutes in the parking lot of the Baylor University stadium where the secret service and military aides regularly cream the press corps in softball.

There, several of the magazine and wire-service photographers, still convinced they were the victims of an extremely elaborate practical joke, were plotting what they would do to Atkiss when he finally came clean.

The two-vehicle motorcade from the softball field was joined by a white Jeep Grand Cherokee with Blake Gottesman, the President’s personal aide, at the wheel, deputy chief of staff Joseph Hagin riding shotgun and Bartlett in the back seat.

Bush’s simplest movements, even a trip to the Crawford coffee shop or a speech a block from the White House, are usually accompanied by an entourage of 50 or more.

For now, it was 12. With no security, Atkiss led the way to the Waco airstrip, getting caught in rush-hour traffic, a rare experience in the White House bubble.

The shades in the press cabin on Air Force One had been pulled down, and both doors were closed, so the reporters could not see Bush arrive or what personnel and firepower accompanied him. The reporters knew he was aboard only when they heard the engines rev.

Now the plane was cruising at an average speed of 665 mph, Baghdad or bust. Richard Keil, a 6-foot-3 inch reporter for Bloomberg News whom Bush calls “Stretch,” leaned across the aisle of the hushed press cabin.

“The President of the United States is AWOL (absent without leave), and we’re with him,” a grinning Keil said as he shoved aside his iPod headset. “The ultimate road trip.”

After leaving Texas, the nearly empty plane streaked toward Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to refuel and pick up chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. Six more journalists — two wire-service reporters and a team from Fox — joined the group at the refuelling stop.

They met in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn Express, and officials confiscated all their electronics gear, from television cameras to pagers, so they would not be tempted to make any record of the super-secret hangar where they would join the President’s party.

The President has two identical planes, each of which becomes Air Force One when Bush is on it. The other is called “the spare”, and they are rarely seen together. On this night, the President was to use the super-secret Air Force One hangar at Andrews to transfer to the second plane, which was fuelled, catered and ready to go.

Bush’s plane pulled into the hangar, where the ground is painted spotless white, about 10.45 pm. As he switched planes, Bush spotted the reporters.

The sound in the hangar was so loud he could not be heard, but he held his thumb and pinkie apart, and raised them to his ear, in the symbol of someone using a phone, and mouthed, “No calls, got it'” He emphasised the point by crossing his arms back and forth in front of him. He made the “cut” sign to his throat and mouthed again, “No calls.”

Air Force One took off for Baghdad 10 minutes later, and Bush was asleep within 20 minutes.

Much of the President’s staff donned camouflage tops and bottoms, both for security reasons and to avoid spoiling the pictures.

The reporters were fitted for “ballistic vests” en route. “Anyone have a tailor'” asked the fastidious Keil.

A little after 5 am Baghdad time, about 10 hours after takeoff from Andrews, the cabin lights were turned off and all the shades were down. Twenty minutes later, we touched down in Baghdad.

Los Angeles Times- Washington Post News Service

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