ZELIENOPLE — Area residents flocked to the Zelienople Public Library Thursday night to hear John Haigh Sr., longtime chief steward aboard Air Force One.
Haigh served on Air Force One under presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, arranging plane maintenance, passenger meals and anything those on board needed.
His path to Air Force One started in Fayette County, where as a 17-year-old, he had to get permission from his parents to enlist in the Air Force.
There, he volunteered for any role he could find flying troops and officials around the world and serving at a variety of ceremonial functions. Soon he was serving aboard planes transporting politicians, military officials, a collection of vice presidents and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
One day, Haigh was flying on the backup plane for President Richard Nixon on a trip to Europe. Haigh flew in the older plane that had years prior transported the body of John F. Kennedy home to Washington after he was assassinated in Dallas.
“So there was some history there,” Haigh said.
On that trip, he said he realized that Air Force One was where he wanted to be.
“I set a goal for myself that someday if the opportunity presented itself, I'd want to be a part of the Air Force One flight crew,” he said.
It was years later, but eventually that day came — outside a restaurant in 1979.
Haigh went in to get something to eat and saw the chief steward at the time was there as well.
While leaving the restaurant, the man followed him out and offered him a job, “if you still want it.”
“If I still want it?” Haigh replied. “I'll take it.” The job was only guaranteed to last until the end of then-president Jimmy Carter's term — 16 more months — but Haigh said he'd take his chances.
More than a dozen years later, Haigh had served through three administrations, getting to know three first families and chalking up a long list of anecdotes and incidents he was witness to throughout the years.
He recalled flying with Carter to Germany to meet American hostages after Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election.
Haigh told about how in one of his first flights with Reagan, he was embarrassed after he'd accidentally spilled icing from a cake on his uniform.
“Don't worry about it,” the president said, “I once fell into a cake.”
He served through all eight years of that administration, often having to think on his feet to meet the needs of his presidential passengers. On one trip, Nancy Reagan asked for a jumpsuit that was supposed to have been made for her. These typically were custom tailored for the president and first lady to make air travel easier. Haigh found that this had not been done.
Instead, Haigh said that it needed to be dry cleaned; he quickly reached out to the tailor, commissioning him to make the suit and have it ready for the trip back.
As chief steward, Haigh also arranged the menu, often working with guests and the cooking staff to accommodate the palates of important officials and dignitaries.
The only thing they couldn't do, he said, was deep fried food, as a deep fryer was not safe on an airplane. While flying with the Reagans, Haigh met English royalty, TV personalities and corporate giants. He spent time with the president's family and dogs and witnessed historic speeches and events.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush was elected president and Haigh again stayed on to serve on the Air Force One flight crew. The first flight with the president-elect saw some snags, Haigh said, with Bush becoming trapped in the plane's lavatory when the door got stuck. A closet afforded the president-elect an escape route, but the door again jammed on the flight back. Bush's chair later malfunctioned and Haigh made sure when they got back to base that maintenance crews went over every inch of the plane to ensure nothing would go wrong the next time.
Equally eventful was the president's horseshoe pitching contest at the White House. Haigh was invited when the president learned of his passion for the sport.
“What's this I hear, you like to pitch horseshoes and haven't lost in 42 years,” Bush asked him.
Haigh found a partner and ended up winning the tournament, beating the president in a bonus round afterward.
“In my wildest dreams, I never thought I'd pitch horseshoes at the White House,” he said.
Haigh flew with the administration for three and a half years, retiring shortly before the end of Bush's first and final term.
The president threw him a retirement party and thanked him for his service. In the time since, Haigh has traveled the country, attending numerous events and ceremonial functions at presidential libraries and ceremonies, often reuniting with the presidential families he served for so long. “Each of the presidents I was privileged to serve were ordinary people like you or I who did extraordinary things to get elected. Whether you agree with them politically or not, they treated us very well,” Haigh said. “It truly was an honor, a pleasure and a privilege to serve the presidents on Air Force One.