Air Force One
5 min read

There are several moments that serve as aviation milestones in my life.

  • My first flight as a young boy, back in the 70s, in a Piper Cherokee, based out of the Hershey Airpark, in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
  • Talking my newlywed wife into allowing me to spend $2,500 of cash from our wedding gifts on flying lessons in the late 80s, only to run out of money right before the first solo cross country.
  • Then, some 30 years later, after knowing what is an iva debt and paying off our mortgage through the IVA, talking that same wife into allowing me to use our former mortgage payment money to restart flying lessons, culminating in earning my private pilot’s license three years ago.

Since that time I’ve purchased a 1979 Mooney M20J with two friends and have been blessed by another friend – a Cub Crafters Sport Cub S2 owner – who allowed me unbridled access to his hangar and his yellow taildragging beauty.

Air Force One

Even Air Force One pilots need practice.

And while the Mooney is great for cross-country trips to visit my son near Dayton, Ohio, and as a training platform for my instrument ticket, it is the Cub that has truly allowed me to know the joy and adventure of flying.

I have flown her in the mountains of West Virginia, along the skyline of New York City, in and out of virtually every grass strip in Pennsylvania, and right to the edge of Camp David’s restricted airspace.

But it would be on a crystal clear spring day in May of last year that Cub 718CC would allow me to experience something few pilots ever know.

For those of us living in and around Harrisburg International Airport (MDT), every month we get to witness a three-hour airshow put on by one of two shimmering blue-and-white 747-200Bs owned by the United States Air Force (tail numbers 28000 and 29000). The Air Force calls them VC-25A but you and I know them as Air Force One.

Because of the 10,001 ft. length of MDT’s runway, the moderate air traffic of its class D airspace, and its proximity to the VC-25A’s home at Virginia’s Joint Base Andrews, Harrisburg International is the perfect location for the presidential pilots to practice instrument approaches.

Watching one of the most recognizable symbols of our country fly low and slow circuits over our hometown is nothing short of magical.

The day started off as just a regular Monday.

Because I am a pastor, Mondays are my normal day off.  They are also my regular day to fly.

On this particular morning, I was heading out to Reigle Airport (58N) to fly the Cub. Reigle is a small, family-owned airport, 10 nautical miles northeast of Harrisburg International.

My plan for the day was to spend two hours practicing three point and wheel landings at several area grass strips.

Well, that was the plan until I heard the distinctive whine of jet engines and noticed a large shadow envelop my car as I made my way to the Cub’s home.

There she was… VC-25A… almost low enough that it seemed I could reach out and touch her.

It was that moment that my flight plan changed.

Would it be possible to not just watch her from the ground, but actually fly with her in the air?

Why not give it a shot? What would I have to lose?

So as soon as I arrived at Reigle, I quickly pulled out ForeFlight and searched for a destination that would set me on a flight path directly over Harrisburg International Airport.  It didn’t take long to determine Gettysburg Regional Airport (W05) would do the trick.

Carbon Cub

A great perch for airplane watching.

With the Cub thoroughly preflighted and Gettysburg dialed into the GPS, I lined up at the end of runway 31, pushed the stick forward, advanced the throttle and rotated off the runway in search of my next aviation milestone.

After clearing Reigle’s pattern, I contacted Harrisburg Approach, informed them that I was flying direct to Gettysburg and would like to transition their airspace.

Without hesitation the controller replied back, “Cub 718CC, squawk 0362, climb to 2,500, and fly directly over International midfield direct to Gettysburg. Traffic is a 747 doing pattern work.”

So I leveled off at 2,500 ft. with Harrisburg’s runways 31/13 right off my nose.

The timing could not have been any better. Just to the north, five miles away, flying the downwind for 31, was aviation majesty.

As I watched it come closer and closer, I heard the controller say, “Venus 02 (Air Force One’s typical call sign when the President is not aboard), traffic your 10 o’clock, 2,500 ft., three miles, a yellow Cub.”

“We’re looking,” was the reply.

Which was quickly followed by, “Cub 718CC, traffic your 2 o’clock, 2,000 ft., three miles, a 747.”

With just a hint to pride and because she was impossible to miss, I replied, “Cub 718CC has the traffic.”

It was then that the magic occurred. For the very first time, rather than looking up at Air Force One from the ground, I looked down upon the beautiful Boeing as she flew directly below me.

What was just another training day for an Air Force pilot, who is regularly entrusted with the care of the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, was one of my most memorable flying moments.

With a smile on my face, I flew on to Gettysburg and headed back to Reigle. By the time I arrived at Harrisburg’s Class D airspace, she was gone for she certainly had more important things to do than fly with a 250-hour private pilot.

But for me, it was an encounter of a lifetime that will be forever recorded in my logbook: “VFR flight to Gettysburg. Crossed HIA. Air Force One (w/o the president) flew 500 ft. below me. Amazing!”

Mike Leonzo
Latest posts by Mike Leonzo (see all)
15 replies
    • Richard
      Richard says:

      What a great story. Boy, I wish I was with you during that flight. Thank you very much for sharing with all of us.

  1. Joe F
    Joe F says:

    You know mike, i think we can all say we’ve had those flights that we will cherish the most. Funny thing is, i still remember most of my flights that I have taken alone or with someone and i don’t need my logbook to even remember then. I think it’s the adventure and pure joy of flying that allows us to keep these memories close at hand. Great story and thanks for sharing.

  2. Rich R
    Rich R says:

    Used to do opposite direction TACAN approaches at Grant Co (Moses Lake, WA) while Boeing was checking out 747 aircraft/crew…they usually didn’t see us, but when someone calls 747 traffic and I can’t see it, I’ll know it’s time to quit…

    If you can, do some big wing rocks when you’re called as traffic, the sun glint helps the other traffic (in addition taxi light…or smoke if you’ve got it!).


    I always find it amusing when ATC tells GA traffic to maintain separation…the guy climbing/going 4x faster usually controls that outcome.

  3. Deanna
    Deanna says:

    Back in the early 70’s, Dulles Airport was sometimes used for practice by the 707s that were the Presidents planes. We were flying from Fredricksburg VA to Leesburg VA when we flew over the unoccupied AF1.

  4. Dean R
    Dean R says:

    Nice article. I live above Camp Hill, Pa and the the Enola LOM/IAF for rwy 13 is in my backyard. Get to see a lot traffic including the govt planes inbound. Occasionally watch the takeoffs at KMDT. Our club plane is based there.

  5. Jerry Anderson
    Jerry Anderson says:

    Great story Mike! I live just east of the Harrisburg Airport and have seen this show above my house countless times, and I hang out at Reigle often. Maybe I’ll bump into you sometime!

  6. John
    John says:

    When I was a student pilot in 2001 I had the privilege of flying in the pattern with a B17 and B24 that was visiting my home airport at Baton Rouge, KBTR. It was especially significant since my dad was a radio operator on B24’s during WWll.

  7. Kim damazo
    Kim damazo says:

    First off, you’ve got a good friend. Keep him/her. Second, thanks for sharing a special flying moment.

  8. EB
    EB says:

    There is nothing like watching the Big Birds from above. Several years ago I was on a flight that took me over Eaker AFB, AR. There were two B-52’s in the pattern and I was able to fly quite close to them. The were smokin’ and goin’.

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