James B. Swindal, 88, Air Force pilot

May 02, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- Col. James B. Swindal, the Air Force One pilot who flew President John F. Kennedy's body back to Washington in the hours after his assassination in Dallas, died April 25 at a hospital here. He was 88.

The cause was heart failure after suffering complications from a broken hip, said his son, James L. Swindal.

Colonel Swindal became the commander of Air Force One - the designation for any plane carrying a president - at the beginning of President Kennedy's presidency.

On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, he landed the blue and white presidential jet, a converted Boeing 707, at Love Field in Dallas. He was monitoring the Secret Service frequency from his cockpit while President Kennedy rode in a downtown motorcade.

At 12:30 p.m., he heard the voice of a Secret Service agent, Roy Kellerman, from President Kennedy's limousine: "Lancer is hurt. It looks bad. We have to get to a hospital."

Lancer was President Kennedy's Secret Service code name.

Soon afterward, the Secret Service communications gear on Air Force One went dead. Colonel Swindal, who relived those moments in The Death of a President by William Manchester, received a phone call from the Kennedy entourage telling him to fuel his plane for a return to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. But he was given no explanation. Only by watching the plane's television sets did he learn that President Kennedy had been shot.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had also been riding in the motorcade, was brought to Air Force One shortly after 1:30 p.m. About 45 minutes later, the coffin bearing President Kennedy's body, accompanied by his wife, Jacqueline, was taken aboard, seats in the rear having been removed to provide the space.

Colonel Swindal cranked up engine No. 3, preparing for takeoff. But Vice President Johnson wanted to be sworn in before departing, and he awaited the arrival of federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes to administer the oath.

Malcolm Kilduff, the assistant press secretary, told Colonel Swindal to cut the engine off. But seconds later, Brig. Gen. Godfrey McHugh, President Kennedy's Air Force aide, having just arrived with the coffin and unaware that Mr. Johnson was aboard, demanded that he lift off immediately. Colonel Swindal pointed to the directive from Mr. Kilduff.

The co-pilot, Lt. Col. Lewis Hanson, fearing that the plane might be a target as part of a wide conspiracy, warmed up the engines twice on his own during the wait for the judge, according to Mr. Manchester's account.

When Judge Hughes arrived, Colonel Swindal escorted her up the ramp, but he did not leave his cockpit to witness Mr. Johnson's swearing in.

"I just didn't want to be in the picture," he recalled. "I didn't belong to the Lyndon Johnson team. My president was in that box."

Departing from Love Field at 2:47 p.m., Colonel Swindal took Air Force One to an unusually high altitude of 41,000 feet.

"He didn't have any idea whether this was part of a large conspiracy," his son said by telephone Saturday. "He wasn't going to take any chances with a new president in the plane."

Colonel Swindal, as he told it to Mr. Manchester, "felt that the world had ended" as he flew eastward. "It became a struggle to continue."

But he made a perfect landing a few moments after 6 p.m. Three days later, he flew over Arlington National Cemetery in Air Force One during President Kennedy's funeral, in a final tribute.

James Barney Swindal, an Alabama native, entered military service shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He flew transport planes in the China-Burma-India theater in World War II and participated in the Berlin Airlift of the late 1940s. He continued to fly Air Force One early in the Johnson administration and retired from military service in 1971.

He sat in the cockpit of his presidential jetliner for the final time in May 1998, telling of his brush with history during a ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where the four-engine plane, tail No. 26000, was being retired. It stands there today, a centerpiece of the U.S. Air Force Museum.

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