I had been on Air Force One many times before as White House correspondent, but I had never seen as much of the President's plane as I did this time. Our 60 Minutes II team flew with President Bush in August on a four and a half hour flight from Waco, Texas to Medford, Oregon. For an hour, I spoke with Mr. Bush in his airborne office about the events of September 11th and how and why he spent much of that day in the air.
I had the feeling that, like most of us, Mr. Bush is still coming to terms with the terrorist attacks, and that our interview allowed him to get some thoughts and feelings on that terrible day off his chest.
Surely Air Force One holds many September 11th memories for the President - it was the safest place for him to be during those early hours of confusion. In addition to being protected, the President was able to stay in touch through a secure telephone system, and we were given a rare glimpse of the communications nerve center of the plane.
The Air Force personnel who man it around the clock are able to reach virtually anyone, anywhere in the world that the President needs to contact. In fact, during my interview, the President demonstrated how he was able to reach the Vice-President by briefly lifting the receiver on a secure phone by his desk. After hanging it up, the phone immediately buzzed as military operators responded to the President's summons.
Even with the most sophisticated technology at his disposal, the President and his staff learned a good deal in the first hours after attack by watching TV. To everyone's frustration, however, the signal kept breaking up as they flew from Florida to Louisiana, Nebraska and back to Washington D.C. As of this summer, that is no longer a problem. Air Force One now has satellite TV.
In addition to the President's office aboard the flying White House, I was given a quick tour of Mr. Bush's private quarters, the conference room which can hold a dozen or more people for meetings or to watch first-run movies.
Every seat on the plane is like first class. There is also a fully equipped medical center, room for Mr. Bush's treadmill and a sizable kitchen. In fact, that morning, we were treated to French toast for breakfast.
The President's pilot, Col. Mark Tillman, invited me to lift off from Waco in the jump seat of the cockpit, where I had interviewed him the day before. Col. Tillman has been flying Presidents aboard Air Force One for nearly a decade.
As we taxied for take-off, I was surprised at how high off the ground I was – nearly three stories up. The President's plane flies easily and smoothly at Col. Tillman's touch - you can almost forget that it's longer than the White House itself.
One thing that struck me about the hours that I spent with the President was how deeply angry he still is about the September 11th attacks and how that single day has come to define his presidency. As he told me on Air Force One, "I made the pledge to myself and to people that I'm not going to forget what happened on September 11th. So long as I'm president, we will pursue the killers and bring them to justice. We owe that to those who have lost their lives."
Check back at 8 p.m. for the rest of the story.