Virgil D. Olson, Marine combat pilot in three wars, dies at 93

Virgil D. Olson, a retired Marine Corps colonel who flew combat missions during World War II, Korea and Vietnam and was the first Marine helicopter pilot to fly the president, died July 31 at The Fairfax retirement community at Fort Belvoir. He was 93.

He had prostate cancer, said his daughter, Sydney Olson.

The thump-thump-thump of military helicopters has been a ubiquitous presence in the skies above Washington since the mid-1950s. The choppers most often seen in the air today wear the forest-green-and-white livery of Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron One, the transport unit responsible for shuttling the president. The helicopters are known by the radio call sign “Marine One” when the president is aboard.

The use of helicopters to transport the president began in 1957 and directly involved the flying expertise of Col. Olson.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first commander-in-chief to ride in a helicopter, in July 1957, during an emergency evacuation rehearsal. He was piloted by an Air Force officer.


Virgil D. Olson, a retired Marine Corps colonel who flew combat missions during World War II, Korea and Vietnam and was the first Marine helicopter pilot to fly the president in 1957, died July 31 at The Fairfax retirement community at Fort Belvoir. He was 93. (Family Photo )

Col. Olson, who participated in the operation but in another helicopter, wrote in the Washington Times in 2004 that the test flight occurred without any major problems except for the slow speed of the president’s helicopter.

Col. Olson, who flew a larger and faster Sikorsky, arrived at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., before the president touched down, despite leaving the White House 10 minutes after Eisenhower had departed.

On Sept. 7, 1957, Eisenhower was on vacation in Newport, R.I., when he was urgently needed back at the White House. Ordinarily, the trip would involve an hour-long ferry trip to the president’s airplane.

Faced with the long ferry ride across the Narragansett Bay, the president opted to ride with Col. Olson in his helicopter. Because Col. Olson had been stationed nearby for emergencies, the president was able to reach his plane in six minutes.

Col. Olson served as commander of Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron One, known as HMX-1, until 1959. He was the president’s official Marine Corps helicopter pilot and flew Eisenhower on trips around Washington and beyond. (The Army also had an executive helicopter detachment and shared duties flying the president until 1976, when HMX-1 took exclusive responsibility for the mission.)

Col. Olson served as chief of staff to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in Vietnam and flew dozens of combat missions. He retired from the military in 1973 as the chief of staff of the Quantico-based Marine Corps Education and Development Command. In 2010, the Marine Corps dedicated a HMX-1 headquarters facility in honor of Col. Olson.

Virgil Donavon Olson was born Feb. 26, 1919, in Charter Oak, Iowa, where his father was town constable. He was the youngest of eight children.

After graduating from high school, Col. Olson joined the Navy and became a Marine Corps officer and pilot in the early 1940s. He flew dive bomber missions in the Pacific during World War II before he volunteered for helicopter training and service in Korea.

Col. Olson’s military decorations included the Legion of Merit, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross and seven Air Medals.

His wife of 51 years, Jean Rodgers Olson, died in 1996. Survivors include three children, Roger Olson of Chevy Chase, Douglas Olson of Eugene, Ore., and Sydney Olson of Alexandria; two grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.

During the Korean War, Col. Olson flew helicopter search and rescue missions. His family said that during one mission he spotted an aircraft floating in a rice paddy. Spotting the plane’s pilot standing on the wings, Col. Olson swooped down to pick up the downed American. It was Marine Corps pilot Ted Williams, best known as a slugger for the Boston Red Sox.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.