Trump, Marine One, and the Rain: Pilots and Other Readers Weigh In

Barack Obama leaving Marine One, in 2013. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last night I posted an item about weather conditions this past weekend in Paris, when Donald Trump joined other world leaders there, and on how rain and clouds affected helicopters, including Marine One.

(For the record, like “Air Force One,” “Marine One” isn’t a fixed name for any  particular aircraft. Whatever Air Force airplane is carrying a sitting U.S. president is, at that moment, known by the call sign Air Force One. Similarly, whatever Marine Corps helicopter carries a president is Marine One.

(Air Force One famously has had one more takeoff than landing in its history. On his final trip away from Washington in 1974, Richard Nixon departed while still president, in a plane whose call sign on takeoff was Air Force One. He had already signed his resignation papers, which went into effect while he was airborne. At the appointed time, after Gerald Ford was sworn in, the pilot of Air Force One radioed Air Traffic Control and requested that the call sign be changed to SAM 26000 — Special Air Mission — which was its ID for the rest of the flight.)

My point in that post was explicitly not to second-guess military pilots or dispatchers who might have advised against Trump’s helicoptering to the commemoration site in the clouds and rain of that day. That’s their call, and they are paid (among other things) for their judgment. Rather, I was addressing two points:

First, that an initial line in some news accounts --that helicopters “can’t fly” in the rain—was just not true. Whether a president should prudently fly by helicopter during marginal weather conditions is of course a different question.

Second, I wanted to emphasize that White House plans for foreign travel always allow for the possibility of bad weather or other surprises. Thus any White House staff I’m aware of, including the one on which I worked long ago during the Carter administration, would have set up redundant contingency plans for getting a president where he needed to be. (After all, the other foreign leaders all managed to get to the site.) Part of the advance work for the trip would necessarily include thinking through how the president would reach his destinations, if the weather turned bad. I’ve been part of these meetings myself.


Now, reader responses, starting with one from a currently active Army helicopter pilot:

I am a UH-60 Pilot-in-Command in the United States Army, currently attending [an advanced training course].

In reference to your article linked below, I can see your logic and your point in this argument that WX conditions were permissive to IMC Flight and possibly VMC flight.

The issue I have is that I, as an FAA rated instrument pilot, flying within the Army's endless rules, probably would have declined to fly VFR during this flight, and therefore would have to fly IFR which, obviously complicates air traffic, and provides higher layers of logistics and coordination to get POTUS from an instrument rated airfield (certified for the President to land at) to the event ceremony.

I wouldn't argue that METARs are pretty accurate, but flying in Central America for fifteen months and [the mountain West] for the same, I've found BR and -RA can result in periods of zero visibility and to conduct the emergency procedure of Inadvertent IMC would be 100% not okay with POTUS or any VIP on board. Europe also is notorious for rotational aviation units to basically be grounded during NOV - MAR (which frustrates all the coordination for cross country clearances, airport logistics, etc.) mainly due to the fact that military helicopter pilots fly VFR.

I have no reason to defend this White House, and my voting record will show an entirely different political inclination than those currently in charge, but just wanted to ensure that we're giving the military pilots a fair shake, especially with a risk profile that one would have to take with VIPs. With all these variables not even including icing, I can really see why it would would be possible not to accept the risk of a VFR or even an IFR flight.

And similarly from another aviation-experienced reader:

I think Trump deserves every criticism and satire that has been heaped upon him — and more — for missing the ceremony. He could have gotten there somehow, if he really wanted to.

That being said, let me also observe (as a fellow pilot, and a CFI [Certified Flight Instructor]) that whenever a US president flies, especially overseas, I'm guessing there are additional airborne security measures in place (AWACS, fighter escort). Perhaps that was a factor.

Thanks to the readers for these points. Just to  make it triply-clear: this is not at all about whatever judgment call the Marine One pilots, or other aviation authorities, might have made. As the saying goes, “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than the other way around.” When working for a president these officials have unique burdens and responsibilities.

But once more time, the point is: White House staffs anticipate these complications, and they make multiple fallback plans precisely because of the “what if?” possibilities.


Now, several responses in a different vein. First, from a reader on the West Coast:

I too was wondering about the mystery.

Then, I believe that my mother solved it.  She said -- "Donald Trump did not attend the ceremony in the rain, because his hair would have fallen apart, and he would have looked terrible."

This explanation sounded ridiculous at first blush.  But actually, when you think it through - it sounds plausible.  I think this is likely the correct explanation of why he missed the event, and it has nothing to do with flying conditions.

His hair and image are the most important things to him, and a horrible photo of Donald Trump in the rain does far more damage to him than missing an event, with an excuse.

Similarly:

I almost feel bad for the guy. I imagine that his makeup (and as twitter noted on your feed, the hair) would look ridiculous in the rain. The president passionately does not want to look ridiculous. And the narrative that he was too preening to stand in the rain would be unacceptable.

The side by side comparisons to Obama, vigorous and impervious to rain would have been unbearable.

It's a terrible state of affairs. Not to engage in whataboutism, but I wonder if a female president would have more easily been afforded a hat?

And:

I think we’re looking for answers for Trump’s no-show in all the wrong places, places that might seem reasonable or logical.

The vanity-focussed explanation is likely the best one; Trump was afraid of what would happen to his hair in the rain and the wind. It’s both reasonable and logical, considering his obsession with his ‘do’.

Imagine the photo ops? His ego would never have survived.


Maybe we’ll eventually know who made what decisions this past weekend. For now, thanks to the readers for weighing in.