Heroes Among Us

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A few short weeks ago, retired Marine Colonel Virgil Olson was celebrating his 88th birthday at his home in Alexandria. Last weekend he was once again the center of attention, a rock star of sorts, at another birthday celebration: the 60th anniversary of HMX-1, better known as Marine Helicopter Squadron One.

The highly-decorated veteran who flew combat missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam earned his place in military history on Sept. 7, 1957, when, as Commanding Officer of HMX-1, he became the first pilot to transport the President of the United States aboard a helicopter.

It happened almost by accident, said Olson as he proudly watched The Presidents Own Marine Band kick off last Saturdays festivities at Marine Corps Air Station Quantico. President (Dwight D.) Eisenhower was at his summer place up in Newport (RI) and needed to get back to Washington quickly.

Facing an hour-long ferry ride across Narragansett Bay to a waiting Air Force One, Eisenhower instead chose to make the historic seven-minute trip in an HMX-1 UH-34 Seahorse helicopter, setting a precedent for future presidents and establishing what is now known as Marine One.

Up until then, we were only training to evacuate the White House in an emergency, said Olson as he mingled with past and present Marine One squadron members throughout the weekend celebrations.

But once HMX-1 established that we could safely land a helicopter on the south lawn of the White House, we began flying the President out to Andrews (AFB) and Camp David.

Olson, whose decorations include two Distinguished Flying Crosses, seven Air Medals, the Legion of Merit with Combat V, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with palm, has the distinction of being the first, and at the time sole, individual assigned as helicopter pilot for the President of the United States.

Test and evaluate
Today more than 700 personnel make up HMX-1, which was established on December 1, 1947, at MCAS Quantico as the first experimental helicopter unit whose role was to test and evaluate military helicopters when rotary wing aviation was still in its infancy. Since its commissioning in 1948, Marine One has served 10 different Presidents, logging in over 275,000 flight hours, all without a single mishap during a Presidential lift mission.

Olson and his family were part of a crowd of more than 1,500, including 13 former commanding officers of the squadron, who visited the HMX-1 Open House at Quantico during the festivities. Despite the dreary skies, the crowd was treated to an awe-inspiring demonstration by the Silent Drill Team from Marine Barracks 8th and I, and afterwards had the opportunity to go aboard several of the Marine One fleet.

On display alongside todays familiar white top VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters was the very first VIP configured UH-34 helicopter flown by Olson, who graciously endured what seemed like an endless request for photographs despite the drizzle.

Behind the successful four-day celebration of events was Major Van Brinson, a current HMX-1 pilot who spent nearly a year planning and coordinating the reunion, which included a golf tournament and black-tie dinner at the recently opened Marine Corps Museum.

It was a lot of work by everyone in the squadron, said Brinson from his Alexandria home. But it was worth it to be able to interact with some of my predecessors and see the appreciation they had for the opportunity to come together like this.

Surprisingly, this was only the second time a reunion has been held for the elite squadron and a recurring theme among past and present members is the sense of honor and awe they share at being part of such an important mission that of serving their Commander-in-Chief.

I had over 1,800 combat hours before coming here last fall, said Captain John James, a pilot with three tours in Iraq under his belt. But its amazing how nervous and in awe you get the minute POTUS gets on your helicopter.

Colonel Ray LHeureux, who officially becomes The Presidents Pilot when he takes command of HMX-1 on June 21, concurs.

Its an awesome responsibility, said LHeureux, who has logged more than 4,000 hours in his 27-year career. But it never gets old landing on the South Lawn of the White House and picking up the President of the United States.

A highlight of the weekend was the premier of the video documentary by director Austin Smithard showcasing the history and operations of HMX-1 and showing a grateful George W. Bush praising the men who serve him.

Marine One pilots are unbelievably professional, said Bush in congratulating the squadron on its milestone anniversary.  There is no doubt in my mind that every time I step on board Marine One that Im flying with the very best that our country has to offer.

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