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Col. James Swindal; Piloted Air Force One After Kennedy's Death

James B. Swindal, left, is congratulated by President John F. Kennedy on his promotion to colonel in 1962.
James B. Swindal, left, is congratulated by President John F. Kennedy on his promotion to colonel in 1962. (Chicago Tribune)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 29, 2006

Retired Air Force Col. James B. Swindal, 88, who commanded Air Force One for John F. Kennedy and flew the body of the slain president to Washington from Dallas in 1963, died April 25 at Cape Canaveral Hospital in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He had complications from a broken hip.

Col. Swindal, a soft-spoken Alabamian with matinee-idol looks, was a veteran of World War II and the postwar Berlin Airlift. He had 11,500 flying hours to his credit, including a long stint flying dignitaries from National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base. He became President-elect Kennedy's personal pilot in 1960.

At first, he flew a DC-6 for Kennedy, but Boeing unveiled a tailor-made jetliner for the jet-setting president in late 1962. On that special-order Boeing 707 -- the first jet-powered craft used for presidential transport -- Col. Swindal took Kennedy to Love Field in Dallas from Fort Worth on Nov. 22, 1963.

From a portable radio inside the cockpit, he first heard the account of the president's assassination.

"We were sort of in a bind, because there was no place on Air Force One for a casket, and we sure didn't want to put it in the cargo hold," Col. Swindal told the newspaper Florida Today in 2003.

"But back there in the rear were seats for stewardesses, Secret Service and other passengers. So we unbolted those seats -- about four rows, I'm guessing, at least eight seats -- and made a space about the size of a couch. And there was enough room for people to walk around," he said.

After rushing to ready the plane for its trip to Washington, he said he left the cockpit to salute the coffin upon its arrival from Dallas's Parkland Memorial Hospital.

By early afternoon, the plane was off the ground, loaded to the limit with fuel to stay aloft as long as possible in case the killing was part of a Soviet attack. As an additional precaution, Col. Swindal took the plane to a cruising altitude of 41,000 feet, much higher than usual.

Moments before the two-hour, 18-minute flight, U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes had administered the presidential oath to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. His wife, Lady Bird, and the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy were at Johnson's side.

Col. Swindal flew briefly for Johnson and retired from active duty in 1971 from a managerial position at Patrick Air Force Base, the controlling center for Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

James Barney Swindal, a carpenter's son, was born Aug. 18, 1917, in West Blocton, Ala. He was a crane operator at a cast iron pipe shop in Birmingham before enlisting in the Army after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Assigned to the Army Air Forces, he ferried men and supplies over the Himalayas in the China-Burma-India theater. In the late 1940s, while stationed at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, Germany, he participated in the Berlin Airlift that brought supplies to Berliners during a communist blockade of that city.

On Air Force One, he flew Kennedy to West Berlin in June 1963 to give the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in support of democracy.

In interviews, Col. Swindal said he shared "small talk" with Kennedy, who rarely stayed long in the small cockpit because he wore a back brace.

"The Kennedys invited me to join them for lunch a couple of times, but I couldn't ever do it," Col. Swindal told the Chicago Tribune in 2001. "You fellows in the media would've had a field day if I were back there eating steak in the president's dining room and a near-miss occurred."

In retirement, Col. Swindal settled in Cocoa Beach and only went on an aircraft once more -- when his brother died in California. Otherwise, he had an aversion to flying that his family attributed to a distaste for not being in charge.

Survivors include his wife of 70 years, Emily Glover Swindal, who is at a nursing home in Merritt Island, Fla.; two children, Kathryn Swindal of Leesburg and James L. Swindal of East Hampton, Conn.; two grandsons; and a great-grandson.


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