A front row seat to history

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

The Trump B757 is part of the show as it taxis into the rally facility in Colorado. The route map shows just 1 week of flights during the campaign.

It was not uncommon for us to be on the road 20 or more days at a time. Numerous hotels and restaurants knew us by our first names. The people we met along the way at FBOs, hotels, diners, and taxicabs were sensational in addition to the amazing law enforcement personnel, first responders and motorcade officers.

Regardless of the political affiliation, there would always be friendly assistance, encouragement, support, and conversation that gave us renewed energy. We had the opportunity to meet face to face with the hard working men and women who make up the heart of America and it was a privilege to get to know them.

Frequently, the aircraft was part of the show as we arrived at airports with rallies at the field and the Boeing 757 was the backdrop. This posed a different set of unique logistical challenges but it was fun to watch the rallies from inside the aircraft and we tried our best to stay hidden from view. We would often get creative in unique ways to peer out the windows, even kneeling on the floor of a darkened hallway to watch the excitement. Since there was television service on the airplane, there would be times that we would be watching the very event that we were attending on the TV screen inside the cabin.

Servicing the aircraft at these events can be a little tricky as we were on tight time schedules that required departure immediately after the event. Running the APU was frequently not an option since we were close to the crowds and noise was an issue but we needed power to fuel, initialize the navigation systems and start the engines. Thanks to diligent help from the FBO personnel, we would strategically time the APU start immediately after the event ended, quick fuel the aircraft, remove the stairs and be underway.

We as pilots seem to always be graded on our takeoffs and landings. So there was always the added pressure of performing well in front of thousands of people watching those takeoffs and landings both in person and on tv.

Memorable moments

A journey such as this would not be complete without some humorous moments and we had many. One of my favorites was during a normal layover in San Jose CA that was scheduled to be several hours. We parked the airplane and decided to go inside the FBO to get food since it was one of the rare occasions that we were parked fairly close to the building.

The FBO was gracious enough to allow us to use their conference room to eat our locally acquired favorite hamburgers. Half way through our dining experience the cell phone rings and the voice on the other end states that "the motorcade is on the way" a full 90 minutes early! We jumped up from our half eaten food, bolted for the door and started running across the ramp for the airplane.

Normally this would not be a big deal in the life of a corporate pilot. However, this gets attention in the life of a Secret Service Agent. Picture us running across the ramp toward the guarded aircraft of a Presidential candidate! Fortunately all turned out well as we were closed up and ready to go just as the navigation systems came to life.

On another occasion, we were beginning our day in a cold weather location. We started the APU, serviced the airplane, performed our cabin and flightdeck tasks and were prepared for the day! It was a beautiful, crisp morning. The crew and airplane were ready with everything in position for a spectacular day of flying.

Just as the motorcade pulls through the gate and starts toward the aircraft, the APU shuts down. Anyone in corporate aviation for any amount of time knows that sinking feeling of such an event at the worst possible time! Thanks to the swift efforts of the local FBO and a fellow 757 operator, a power cart and start cart were located and we were on our way with minimal delay.

Election Day, winning and then meeting the Air Force One Commander and his crew
On the evening of Election Day, we completed our journey at 2:00 am with the final landing of the campaign at New York's JFK Airport. We were exhausted but honored to be part of such a historic occasion. Over the past 21 months, we had visited 45 states, flown 370,725 miles, landed in 203 cities, operated 722 legs, burned over a million gallons of fuel and met some of the most incredible people along the way.

After some much needed rest, the coming days were equally as event filled as we then had the distinct honor of meeting with the crew of the distinguished Air Force One operation. The Commander and his team met with us for the turnover preparations and they were gracious beyond our expectations. I was impressed by the extreme attention to detail that the Air Force considers when making a transition to the next President.

They take great pride in getting every preference of the individual and the family exactly correct. Our most memorable moment came during inauguration week as my team and I stood at the base of the stairs of the Air Force 757 with the USAF Commander and his staff as we performed the hand off from one flight department to the next. It was a very emotional moment for all of us.

What a great career!

As pilots we all have the unique opportunity to see and do some very remarkable things in our careers. Every individual that serves in this industry has his or her own unique talents, abilities and stories. This is a great profession that is still one of the most respected in the world.

Included in our profession are not only the aviators but also all the great people that support our operations both on the ground and in flight. I am honored to be part of this profession. My story came by chance as my boss decided to run for President and I was fortunate enough to participate in the journey. It truly was a front row seat to history.

Capt John Dunkin is the chief pilot and director of aviation operations for the Trump Flight Department. He flies the Boeing 757, Citation X and Sikorsky S76 helos.


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