Pilot to the president

Sean Quigley is living a dream few ever achieve.

The Lugoff native, now a major in the U.S. Marine Corps, is currently assigned to an elite group of Marine Corps helicopter pilots. Their mission: to fly the president of the United States whenever and wherever he needs to go.

Now in his mid-30s, Quigley has forged a strong career in the Marines and is doing what he has always wanted to do. But this latest assignment is something he never thought he would ever be doing.

“I’ve always wanted to fly, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be doing this,” Quigley said of his latest career opportunity. “Yet as you move along, you find that something like this becomes more possible. And that’s another great thing about living in this country and having those opportunities.”

The most typical flight Quigley and his fellow pilots make is the helicopter shuttle to or from the south lawn of the White House to Andrews Air Force Base, where the president’s jet, Air Force One, is based. However, the president will take Marine One other places, and Quigley has flown a number of missions, including trips to Camp David, Chicago, even cross-country and back.

“It’s amazing when you’re sitting there on the south lawn, the rotors are stopped, engines online, and you’re looking out your window, you see all the press, all the visitors — then you look over your shoulder, and you see the president walking up to the ‘copter,” Quigley said. “He gets in, shakes the pilot’s hand, gives you the man (slap on the back) slap. Then you suddenly realize you have him on board, and you hope you do it all right!”

The assignment to the squadron lasts four years. Each pilot considered must have at least 1,500 hours flying time and a good service record with no derogatory information that might prevent one from obtaining a top secret security clearance.

During the first year and some of the second year, the new pilots must learn how to fly the two presidential helicopters, the VH-3 and the VH-60. Once the pilot learns those two aircraft, he can receive his co-pilot wings and fly any mission. During the third year the pilot goes back through the training school again, but this time it’s much more intense and thorough, as now the pilot is being evaluated to be a White House aircraft commander, which can allow the pilot to command any helicopter flying any mission carrying any VIP up to the vice president, Quigley said.

“During the fourth year, you can progress further if you are selected; you can be a command pilot and Marine One pilot,” Quigley said.

There are only five Marine One pilots, including the commanding officer of the squadron.

Now in the middle of his second year, Quigley is currently a mission co-pilot; he will start the White House flight training in the spring.

Career path
How does a young man from Lugoff — or anywhere, for that matter — find himself a few years later in the co-pilot’s seat of Marine One?

Quigley, a son of Richard and Anne Quigley of Lugoff, graduated from Lugoff-Elgin High School in 1988. At that point, he had to make some decisions about his future, he said.

“When it came down to a place to go to school, I realized if I wanted to go someplace besides in-state, I’d have to find a way to pay for it,” Quigley said.

It was Quigley’s mother, Anne Quigley, who suggested looking into one of the national service academies. Quigley agreed that was an idea worth investigating. Then he visited the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and he was hooked.

“I saw Annapolis — and I was floored,” he said. “I knew right then that’s where I wanted to be, that I wanted to, had to be a part of that.”

After graduating from L-EHS, Quigley went to the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., for a year before securing his appointment to Annapolis. He graduated the Naval Academy in 1993.

“It was tough, but I was there because I really, really wanted to be there,” Quigley said. “That made a lot of the difficult stuff easier.”

Quigley did well at Annapolis, well enough to be given the option to choose a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps — only about 16 percent of academy graduates are given that option — and finished his basic Officer School at Quantico, Va.. Then in January 1994, it was off to Pensacola, Fla., for flight school.

“You do your primary training in a fixed-wing, single-engine turbo prop,” Quigley said. “Then you move to the TH 57 and you finish learning in that. At the end of the primary training, you are allowed to voice your preferences, but it all comes down to your grades, preferences and the needs of the Marine Corps.”

Many who fly dream of streaking across the sky in a super sonic fighter jet. Quigley, however, chose to fly helicopters.

“In the Marines if you’re not flying helicopters, in a way, you’re a little more distant from the rest of the Marines,” he said. “If you’re flying jets, you climb into the jet, leave the deck and that’s it. But if you’re a helicopter pilot, you’re more involved. You’re planning and briefing a mission with the folks who are going to do it. They get in your helicopter, they see you, you see them, you take them where they need to go. And whether we’re bringing them water, chow, evacuating casualties, or attacking with close air support, they’re always glad to see you.”

And how is it to fly the president?

“It’s amazing,” Quigley said. “You never see him get on or off the helicopter without a smile on his face and without a determined look. He’s always got that, ‘Don’t worry about it, America, I’m going to take care of you’ look. That’s one of the greatest things, seeing that every day.

“And that’s another thing about this country — only in a place like America could you get the opportunity to do something like this.”

©Camden Chronicle Independent 2007

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