By Tom Dalton
Instead of taking the president directly to Andrews Air Force Base for the flight home to Texas, the pilot decided to give Bush a “victory lap” over the National Mall, which was packed with an estimated 2 million people.
“First of all, it was very, very nostalgic for me to fly the last flight of a president we have all loved,” said L’Heureux, 47, commander of Marine Helicopter Squadron One, based in Quantico, Va.
“He is our commander in chief, and it had to be nostalgic for him, as well. … I just thought with all the excitement down below it would be kind of a neat thing to put all that excitement out his left window.”
L’Heureux, who went to the former Bowditch Elementary School and Salem High, has been Bush’s personal pilot for the past 18 months of a two-year command. He flew Bush to Camp David for weekend getaways, around his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and all over the world.
“We accompany the president wherever he goes globally,” he said.
That has meant trips to England, Germany, Romania and Poland — and also Iraq and Afghanistan. While the president flies over in Air Force One, the Marine One helicopter is flown in parts and then reassembled overseas.
“We will break (it down), and stuff the helicopter in the back of big cargo jets,” he said.
While flying about 90 percent of Bush’s official presidential trips, L’Heureux has gotten to know the man who has led this country for the past eight years.
“He is just an absolutely wonderful man,” he said. “He has treated all of us within the White House military office very kindly and very graciously. You can tell on his face, or just when he deals with you, his affection for us in uniform, and that’s across the broad spectrum. … He just has a very, very warm affinity for all of us.”
On Tuesday, L’Heureux flew the helicopter to the Capitol grounds early in the morning, landing around 7 a.m. “We had already flown down the mall just prior to that,” he said. “It already was starting to get very crowded.”
As soon as President Barack Obama finished his inaugural address, L’Heureux got into Marine One and started it up. In addition to the president and Laura Bush, passengers included their two daughters, a son-in-law, and former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara.
“(Bush) was talking mostly to his family, and I was busy flying,” L’Heureux said.
L’Heureux stressed that he doesn’t perform this awesome task by himself. He is one man in a large squadron. “I’ve got about 750 other Marines that help me do it,” he said.
Now that Bush has gone home to Texas, L’Heureux will be flying a new boss named Obama.
“We fly the president, whoever happens to be the president,” he said. “… I’m sure he’s a great guy. And, like I said, we’re a service provider and the squadron is absolutely looking forward to supporting our next president.”