- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

SAN DIEGO — President Bush helped pilot the jet that swooped down for a dramatic landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln yesterday, marking the first time he has taken the controls of an aircraft in more than 30 years.”I flew it,” Mr. Bush said with a grin upon landing. He called the experience “really exciting. I miss flying, I can tell you that.”The president sat in the co-pilot’s seat and maneuvered the joystick of the Navy S-3B Viking for about five minutes during the 15-minute flight from San Diego to the aircraft carrier, which was returning to the West Coast after serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.The president was not at the controls when the plane made a picture-perfect landing on the flight deck, where its tailhook snagged the last of four steel cables, bringing the aircraft to a lurching halt in fewer than 400 feet. The original plan was for the Viking to snag the third cable.Although landing a plane on a moving aircraft carrier is considered one of the most dangerous maneuvers in aviation, the White House insisted Mr. Bush was not playing the role of daredevil.”If it wasn’t safe, the president of the United States would not be doing it,” said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. “And I remind you it’s done every day, many times a day, by Navy pilots whose mission is to fly on an aircraft carrier.”But not all such landings are successful. On April 1, a Viking skidded off the deck of the USS Constellation. The two pilots were rescued and the Navy is investigating the cause of the mishap.The president prepared for such a scenario by undergoing water-survival training in advance of yesterday’s flight, said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The training reportedly involved sitting in a cockpit simulator that is filled with water, forcing the president to hold his breath.Mr. Bush also underwent rigorous training in the late 1960s for his stint as a jet fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard. He had hoped to relive that excitement yesterday by helping pilot an F-18 fighter jet, which has just two seats, for the trip to the carrier.But the Secret Service insisted on having an agent with the president, who agreed to take the four-seat Viking instead. The seats were occupied by Mr. Bush, a Secret Service agent, the pilot, Cmdr. John “Skip” Lussier, and a naval flight officer, Lt. Ryan Phillips.The plane flew over the Lincoln twice amid cloudy skies and buffeting winds before smoothly approaching the deck at 150 miles per hour and landing without incident. Mr. Bush waved from inside the cockpit as hundreds of sailors and Marines cheered on deck.The president emerged in a green flight suit with his white helmet tucked under his left arm. Grinning from ear to ear, he shook hands with the ship’s senior leaders before plunging into a throng of F-18 pilots, with whom he posed for pictures.The extraordinary images, which received extensive TV coverage, triggered grumbling among some Democrats, who dismissed the landing as an expensive photo opportunity that will show up in TV ads for the president’s re-election campaign.”The president is going to an aircraft carrier far out at sea with military surroundings, while countless numbers of Americans are frightened stiff about the economy here at home,” said presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.The White House shrugged off such complaints.”The president has never politicized national security; nor will he,” a senior official told The Washington Times. “And I think it would be unfortunate if Democrats did.”It was the first time a sitting president ever landed on a moving aircraft carrier. The White House pointed out that the Lincoln was commissioned in 1989 by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who is now the vice president.Mr. Cheney yesterday watched the landing on TV from his office, a source close to the vice president said.Mr. Bush said the Viking was “much more sophisticated” than the F-102 jets he flew in the Texas Air National Guard.Before the landing, Mr. Fleischer jokingly told reporters to watch the plane for erratic movements in order to determine whether Mr. Bush was at the controls.”The best clue will be if you see the plane flying on a straight line, you’ll know that the Navy pilot is in charge,” Mr. Fleischer said. “If it does anything else, it’s an open question.”Upon landing, Mr. Bush said his role was to “just steer it” in a straight line.Mr. Bush was scheduled to depart the carrier today on the presidential Marine One helicopter, because the ship will be closer to land. The Lincoln then will stop in San Diego before continuing to its home port of Everett, Wash.

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