Ex-Air Force colonel was Nixon’s pilot
Ralph Albertazzie’s most memorable flight as President Richard Nixon’s personal pilot on Air Force One was the final, history-making journey they took together.
Summoned to fly Nixon home to Orange County after the president resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, Albertazzie made sure to calculate the geographic point the plane was flying over -- 13 miles southwest of Jefferson City, Mo. -- when incoming President Gerald Ford finished taking the oath.
Then, at the midpoint of the flight, Albertazzie radioed ground control to request a new call sign for the Boeing 707 that could be known as “Air Force One” only if an acting chief executive was aboard.
“In the plane’s lounge people were crying,” Albertazzie told People magazine in 1979. “I don’t think ever again will a president leave office while flying in a plane. Afterwards, Nixon came out of his private compartment and said: ‘Well, is everybody enjoying the trip?’ No one spoke.”
Albertazzie, a retired Air Force colonel who served in three wars, died Monday at his home in Falling Waters, W.Va. He was 88. Brown Funeral Home in Martinsburg, W.Va., confirmed his death.
When Nixon took office in 1969, Albertazzie was “without question the best 707 pilot the Air Force had,” Bill Gulley, a former director of the White House military office, wrote in the 1980 book “Breaking Cover.”
The logbook Albertazzie kept showed that he had manned the controls of Air Force One for 324,264 miles as the president visited 35 countries, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reported in 2001.
Nixon had him slip Henry A. Kissinger into Paris 14 times for secret negotiations aimed at ending the war in Vietnam. Albertazzie also made several trips, with Kissinger and Nixon, to China that led to normalized relations with that country.
During the Kennedy administration, Albertazzie regularly flew with the president and his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson. John F. Kennedy relished the privacy the plane provided, while the gregarious Johnson often visited in the cockpit, the pilot recalled in “The Flying White House: The Story of Air Force One,” the 1979 book he wrote with J.F. terHorst, who was briefly Ford’s press secretary.
Ralph Dayton Albertazzie was born July 16, 1923, in Cassville, W.Va. The son of a coal mine superintendent, he washed airplanes at a small local airport in exchange for flying lessons. He later bought the airport.
While in the military, he taught bomber pilots in World War II, flew troops and supplies in the Korean War and completed 25 combat missions during the Vietnam War, according to the 1979 People article.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1974, Albertazzie served as West Virginia’s commerce commissioner. He later owned a truck stop and a TV station in the state.
He also co-wrote a well-reviewed 1989 suspense thriller, “Hostage One,” a fictional account of an attempt to kidnap a president by hijacking his plane.
In “The Flying White House,” Albertazzie recounted his parting exchange with Nixon after their last landing, at the El Toro military base.
“We covered a lot of miles together, you and I,” Nixon, who had resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, told his pilot. “I’m sorry it’s ending this way.”
“I am too, Mr. President,” Albertazzie told Nixon just before a helicopter took him home to San Clemente. “Good luck. Goodbye.”
Albertazzie’s wife, Carol, died in 1999 after 57 years of marriage.
He is survived by two daughters, Lynette Crosby and Sally Albertazzie; a half-sister, Lorraine Stout Simpson; and two grandchildren.