August 28, 2014

Former presidential pilot stops by Atwater’s Castle Air Museum

Ken Rice logged 5,000 hours flying presidents, first ladies and other dignitaries around the world

Ken Rice stopped by Thursday morning at Castle Airport to see an old, familiar friend. He has spent thousands of hours with this pal all over the world.

The “friend” was the decommissioned Douglas VC-9 airplane he once piloted that has now found a home at the Castle Air Museum after 30 years of transporting presidents, vice presidents, first ladies, world leaders and lawmakers.

The plane that once flew as Air Force One and about 35 vintage aircraft will be on display Sunday at the Castle Air Museum’s Open Cockpit Day. The event runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with 3,000 to 4,000 aviation enthusiasts expected.

Rice, 66, flew his Lancair Legacy home-built experimental plane to Castle from his home in Payson, Ariz., which is just a little more than two hours away as the crow flies. The two-seat Lancair he recently finished building pales in complexity compared with the towering presidential aircraft that arrived here amid considerable fanfare about a year ago.

While Rice didn’t get personal with any of his world-famous passengers and has lost track of them now, he counted several of them as friends.

He is particularly fond of President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, who he said were very down to earth and almost embarrassed to be the center of attention and waited upon. The senior Bush was vice president to President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, who were also frequent fliers.

Rice also got to know Vice President Dan Quayle, who he said was a very smart individual, contrary to his reputation in the media at the time. Quayle, Rice said, was easy to get along with and everybody liked him. Quayle wrote Rice a letter of recommendation as he sought post-military employment with the commercial airlines.

On his way to Oregon on Thursday, Rice came to see his friend Larry Morelock of Merced, the vice chairman and facilities chairman for the Castle Air Museum. After bidding the Air Force goodbye, both Morelock and Rice were pilots for Reno Air and then American Airlines until retiring recently.

Rice said Barbara Bush was a friendly, grandmotherly person. Hillary and Bill Clinton were politicians, always smiling and friendly with those they came in contact with, while still remaining detached. Nancy Reagan could be a demanding passenger.

“They (the Bushes) were good, friendly people,” Rice said.

Rice spent more than 20 years in the Air Force, retiring in 1994 as a major. His last nine years were spent with the 89th Military Airlift Wing, the elite Air Force unit in charge of transporting presidents. Only about 10 percent of those who seek the Air Force One job actually get the special duty assignment.

Air Force One took Rice all over Canada, and North, Central and South America. For his last several years, there were flights to Europe and as far east as Turkey. He flew into Havana and Moscow several times.

Rice said he is glad all three of the Douglas VC-9 aircraft that served as Air Force One have been preserved. Besides the one at Castle, the other two are in Dover, Del., and McMinnville, Ore. Most old DC-9 aircraft have been scrapped.

No, there were no close calls flying the presidential planes, Rice said, and the 89th MAW maintained the planes like they were brand-new.

Not all of Rice’s duties were high-profile or glamorous. There was duty in Vietnam, and he flew C-130 Hercules cargo planes once dubbed “four-engine garbage trucks” transporting guns, ammunition and supplies from Thailand to Cambodia. He flew the last Air Force mission out of Vietnam, receiving battle damage from ground artillery fire and an unexploded round that lodged in the wing.

For his service in Southeast Asia, Rice received the Air Medal for bravery from the Air Force.

Morelock said he has been close friends with Rice for about 20 years. He flew KC-135 Stratotanker airplanes at Castle and was an instructor pilot before joining Rice at Reno Air and American Airlines.

“He’s (Rice) a great guy,” Morelock said. “He’s always calm and relaxed, extra-knowledgeable and helpful. He’s just a good friend.”

Rice said he has about 25,000 flying hours from his days as a private pilot through the Air Force and commercial airline service. He has been working on the Lancair for the past 13 years.

Asked why pilots fly, Rice said because it’s fun. And what could be more fun than shuttling George Bush to Geneva or Quayle to Quebec?

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