A front row seat to history

Chief Pilot John Dunkin tells how it was to fly Candidate Donald Trump to political events.

By John Dunkin
ATP/Comm Helo. Boeing 757,
Citation X, Sikorsky S76
Director Of Aviation Operations
The Trump Organization

(L–R) Captain John Dunkin, Cabin Attendant & Dept Administrator Stacey Steinmetz, FO Peter Harron, FO John Stanton and Capt Juan Vallejo.

I will never forget the day that Mr Trump, now the President, walked into the cockpit of his Boeing 757, sat down on the jump seat and said "John, I am going to run for President." I had no idea at the time as to what was in store for the coming months and years as none of us had ever been involved in a campaign before.

Looking back on it now, that was certainly a blessing because the enormity of the process would have been very overwhelming at the time. Life for the next 21 months was going to get very interesting. Not having done this before, we simply took it a day at a time and went where we needed to go on that particular day.

The Trump flight department

Candidates that run for President normally hire an entire airline but that is not how we roll. Our flight department consists of a Boeing 757, Cessna Citation X and 3 Sikorsky S76 helicopters. Our flying staff at the time was made up of only 2 full-time fixed-wing pilots including myself and 2 full-time helicopter captains. Both fixed wing Pilots are also dual qualified with helicopter ratings.

Once into the campaign, we added 2 additional pilots to keep up with the schedule. Our flight department has always been very lean and efficient. During my travels for both political events and business, I am most frequently asked what it was like to fly a Presidential campaign. I can honestly say it was one of the most incredible experiences of my aviation career.

Tough flying but there was good help along the way

"Trump Force One" landing at GJT (Grand Junction CO) for an airport rally.

Our journey began in April of 2015 with a flight to Des Moines IA as a political exploratory mission. Des Moines would become one of the most visited cities during the campaign and I want to give credit to Signature Flight Support at DSM as well as our numerous other FBO providers around the country who were all sensational! We traveled there through every weather condition imaginable including fog, snow and thunderstorms–Signature was always there to support us, no matter the conditions.

Operating a Boeing 757 in a corporate environment utilizing private FBOs has unique challenges that we do not even think about when flying our smaller aircraft. You don't simply show up at an FBO unannounced or call in range with an aircraft that size. With a wingspan of 135 ft, a length of 150 ft and a ramp weight of 256,000 lbs, a lot of advance planning is required.

A Boeing 757 is typically handled at an airline terminal building with an appropriately stressed ramp, a jetway, external power, ground equipment, and a team of ground service personnel. A careful review of the Airport Facility Directory and conversations with the FBOs and airport managers is critical, paying close attention to runway turnoff dimensions, taxiway widths and weight bearing capability of the airport surface areas. Parking is also an important consideration, as many FBO ramps simply cannot accommodate an aircraft that size. Many times, we would park on a cargo ramp or on a closed taxiway.

My teammates were fantastic

Cabin Attendant & Flight Dept Administrator Stacey Steinmetz and Captain John Dunkin on the flightdeck of The Trump Organization's Boeing 757.

In our flight department we do everything ourselves and frequently we were planning the flights for the coming days during layovers. When you are operating 3, 4 and 5 legs a day, the logistics can be daunting. Fortunately I had an exceptional team that assisted me with the preparations. My Co-captain Peter Harron and Flight Attendant/Administrator Stacey Steinmetz were invaluable and we all just did what had to be done to make it happen.

Joe Cannizzaro and Dan Leahy, our maintenance directors were also sensational. They would frequently work through the night to keep up on inspection items and address write-ups. Juan Vallejo and John Stanton were critical on the Citation X as were Richard Kimble and Matthew Hanley on the helicopters.

Our typical day would involve reporting to the aircraft at least 2 to 3 hours in advance of departure time to prepare for the day. The service of the aircraft would include stairs, belt loader, fuel, 4 lavatories, and pre-flight duties. Frequently we would perform many of these items upon arrival the night before to get a jump-start on the next day. Our team did it all.

On every leg we cleaned 4 bathrooms, wiped down all the gold and wood, cleaned the seats, vacuumed the carpet, and re-stocked the snacks. We all had our designated tasks and worked in perfect harmony to get the job done. After that, it was time for the normal flightdeck preparations. Fortunately our passengers did not desire extensive catering which simplified the galley process considerably.

Security measures

Security on our aircraft was very tight. In the beginning, our security was private and provided by the organization but once into the campaign, the United States Secret Service joined us. This was an extremely welcome addition and we became fast friends. I cannot say enough good things about the men and women who serve as agents in the Secret Service as they have an extremely difficult job and do it very well. These dedicated professionals became our constant companions and were a great addition to our operation. A ground team would be sent to an airport before our arrival and this became an unexpected help in assisting with the advance preparations. Having a team on the ground at an FBO before we got there was a great aid in making our visit seamless.

Trips increased and got longer

Our trip lengths began in a relatively normal fashion at first but got much longer as the campaign moved forward. We would frequently fly 3, 4 and 5 legs per day with duty days between 12 and 16 hours. We traversed the country from North to South and East to West visiting some of the most incredible cities in the United States.


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