Working with Air Force One: AEDC’s John Washer shares his experience
By Kathy Gattis, AEDC/PA
/ Published March 18, 2019
ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- Very few of us can say we’ve met even one U.S. president, but Test Operations and Sustainment contractor John Washer has met two – President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. He met them when he started working with Air Force One, the president’s airplane.
“The team I was assigned to conducted all security once the president exited Air Force One and subsequently departed on Marine One,” Washer said.
While his interactions with the president and vice president were limited, he got to know the Security Forces assigned to the Phoenix Raven program well. This was the group who actually flew with the president and his staff. You’ve seen them; they’re the people standing at the bottom of the stairs who wait patiently as the president and his entourage board or depart the plane.
“We were a very close group, and I miss those times just working with them,” Washer said. “They became family, and we were all very close and would do anything for each other. When I sit and think about it, something as simple as entering a complex, walking down the hall and seeing pictures of past presidents on the aircraft, some with historical significance in context and some that were just candid; it’s those experiences that I probably cherish the most.”
The assignment of working for Air Force One didn’t happen instantly. Washer first applied for a special duty assignment to Andrews Air Force Base while stationed at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. He received orders and was assigned to the 89th Security Forces Squadron and deployed to Camp Bucca, Iraq, when he learned that his clearance came through and he would begin working for the Air Force One Maintenance and Support Complex.
His initial title was Security Response team leader. This is the area supervisor for security of the Air Force One Maintenance and Support Complex for a specific shift. After undergoing extensive training, Washer later became one of the vindicator operators for his shift, which was known as Panther Flight. As the vindicator operator, the primary responsibility is to monitor the alarm system and dispatch security patrols to alarms for the complex when activated. In real world incidents, the vindicator operator would be in direct communication with appropriate commanders and, if the situation warranted, the White House Military Office.
During his three years with the Air Force One team, Washer had many memorable experiences.
“My first night on duty at Andrews (AFB), we did a security detail for then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was one I remember partly because it was my first security detail. Another one that stuck out to me was the return of Captain Richard Phillips, who had been held hostage by Somali pirates while he and his crew were on the Maersk Alabama. This one was memorable because the event was world news and it was a big deal when he was rescued and brought back to the U.S.
“I remember that prior to leaving office, President George W. Bush came to the Air Force One Maintenance and Support Complex to meet with each Airman that took direct part in support missions during his term in office. This included logistics, maintenance, security, food services and the flight crew. It was more than a quick five-second handshake and it was a humbling experience for so many of us.”
Another time Washer recounts providing a tour for Vice President Dick Cheney’s family. Washer was the area supervisor for security of the famed U-2 Reconnaissance aircraft also known as Dragon Lady during the Joint Service Open House when the tour was requested.
“I truly enjoyed the people I got to work with and, looking back now, being a part of history. I don’t think I truly appreciated it like I do now. I took my job very seriously and did it to the best of my abilities, but I never really took a deep breath and thought about how much of an honor it was,” he said.
In November of 2009, Washer was honorably discharged after serving six years on active duty; three with Air Force One. He then returned to Tennessee and began working in state government before landing at AEDC.
“This base (AEDC) offers me an opportunity to continue to serve my country and allows me to utilize some of my skillsets I acquired from the military. It’s also one of the coolest missions in all the military. I don’t know if people truly appreciate it; the work everyone does is so unique. The men and women who work in the test areas do an absolutely amazing job. I’m in awe each time I get to go visit these areas.”
Washer now works for National Aerospace Solutions in Industrial Security.
He heard about AEDC through his first flight chief who was also from Tennessee.
“TSgt. Wagner told me about the base and how he hoped to be stationed here before he retired,” Washer said. “I think at the time there were maybe two to three active duty members in Security Forces at AEDC.
“I think AEDC is one of the best kept secrets; this is a tremendous place to work. I’m truly proud to come to work every day.”