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On Air Forsh-Sh-Sh One

Jun 19, 2006  •  Post A Comment

So what’s it like to be a reporter going off the grid with President Bush, who caught nearly everyone by surprise by heading for Baghdad Monday when everyone was expecting him to be preparing for a press conference in the White House Rose Garden?

The Insider put that question to CNN chief national correspondent John King. He was asked to be TV pool correspondent on the trip because his sudden absence would not be noticed by the White House press corps.

The Insider will skip the meaty, newsy part of the trip-that was well-covered-and get right to the behind-the-scenes details for which she lives.

Mr. King’s involvement started with a Sunday afternoon e-mail from Dan Bartlett, the presidential counselor who oversees communications, and a subsequent low-key meeting at a moderately priced chain restaurant on Washington’s Wisonsin Avenue with Mr. Bartlett and White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace. Mr. King had covered the White House for more than eight years and “knew the drill,” they explained.

After Mr. King cleared the trip in utter secrecy with CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman, he was declared “unavailable” to work Monday. He would take CNN photojournalists Tim Garraty and Phil Littleton with him on Air Force One, which also carried a standard travel pool consisting of four print correspondents and four still photographers.

Mr. King told his ex-wife and two children he was going on “a short but sensitive trip that I wasn’t supposed to talk about.”

His daughter, 9, said, “‘Daddy, you’re going to Iraq.’ It came out just like that. She actually got a little emotional and said she would prefer that I not go. I was taken aback by that and we had to talk for a little while. In the end, she was fine,” Mr. King said.

The flight plan was was to go directly to Baghdad and land during daylight,” Mr. King said. “The number of agents on Air Force One was higher than normal. The plane landed in a way you’re not supposed to land a 747. It banks in until you get close to the airport and then it just drops. They handed out flak jackets when we landed. They said, ‘Run to the helicopters.'”

The ride to the relatively safe Green Zone in Baghdad in U.S. military transport helicopters, which carried about 25 flak-jacketed and helmeted people each, was “intense. You’re flying very low,” Mr. King said. One soldier in back and two at the front of each helicopter were “hanging out, manning machine guns.”

Air Force One stewards (whom King praises as underappreciated) served an unremarkable frozen ravioli dinner and a breakfast on the 11-hour trip over. Food was made available at the U.S. Embassy, which also served “this gawdawful coffee but it was strong, which was all we needed.”

Because by then the world knew the President was in Baghdad, takeoff was to be after dark and as rocket-like as possible. So Air Force One did not leave Iraq with enough fuel for a direct trip back to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

Everyone was told not to turn on their cellphones, BlackBerrys, computers or anything else that might give off a glow or a signal that might be tracked. Window shades were down and were to stay down. “Takeoff was just strange,” Mr. King said. “You hear the engines gun and then, in a pitch-black environment, this giant 747 starts lurching forward and then just takes off. It goes as straight up as it can.”

The plane refueled in England, where Mr. King called his children and saw an e-mail reporting that ABC newsman Bob Woodruff, who was nearly killed outside Baghdad on Jan. 29, had made an emotional visit to ABC News. “It made me smile,” he said.

The trip was “tense and cool. The ‘gee whiz’ of it was cool. It was nice to have an eye on that moment.” His 36 hours of it were over, but he could not not mention the troops, journalists and others “still there in a lousy situation.”