The Surprising Truth About Flying With Former First Lady Michelle Obama on Bright Star

Feb 19, 2017

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The truth is I would have never believed someone — not in a million years — if they told me I would fly around the country with the First Lady of the United States.

But for nearly two years, I was the Trip Coordinator at the White House for Michelle Obama, a job that allowed me the opportunity to see so much of our country and so many places across the globe — and travel on Bright Star, the official plane of the First Lady. From a travel perspective, there were a lot of surprises that came with flying alongside Mrs. Obama.

The Plane Itself Felt Remarkably Familiar

The first time I boarded Bright Star, I expected a fancy plane with the newest seats, bathrooms and fixtures. To my surprise, the planes are very modest and similar to commercial cross-country flights, with the seats either akin to a business class or coach seat. The footrests and pull-down tray tables are also the same as you’ll find on commercial flights, as are the cabin’s retractable TVs. The First Lady usually sat in an open cabin in the middle of the plane, and we would gather there for staff briefings, to discuss a recent stop, surprise somebody with a celebration, or just chat.

The Military Made Us Feel at Home

Regardless of what plane Mrs. Obama was on or where she was going, the plane itself was referred to as “Bright Star,” in the same way any plane the President is flying on is called Air Force One. It’s flown by the Air Force and the hard-working crew are all active duty. But despite the pilots and flight attendants being the best in the world at what they do, they weren’t intimidating at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite. It was always nice to board the plane and see their warm, kind, familiar faces. When there were special occasions like birthdays or final flights for Secret Service Agents (before they switched to a different assignment), members of the crew with a knack for baking would surprise us all with a cake mid-flight. If we were traveling somewhere with great food (Kansas City Barbecue, anyone?), the crew would bring some local favorites back to the plane (paid for by staff, of course).

Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden with military personnel at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, May 3, 2016. Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon. 
Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden with military personnel at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon.

No Baggage Claim… Just the Tarmac

A post-trip ritual is baggage collection. When we would return from a trip, there’s the expected “Wheels Down” time… and then we would add on about 30 more minutes for people to pick up their bags. While everybody gathered on the tarmac, the Air Force opened up the belly of the plane and we’d all wait as the bags were unloaded. We’d find our bags and load up the vans before departing the airport (usually on an Air Force Base). Let’s just say that on a rainy or snowy day, a regular baggage claim area seems mighty nice.

You Get to See a Lot, Very Quickly

Thanks to the support of the Air Force and Air National Guard, the First Lady was able to pack a lot into a given day. When the First Lady taped an episode of The Voice with Dr. Jill Biden as part of her Joining Forces initiative, they were able to stop at a military base on the way home. While they were there, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden participated in a story time event with the children of military personnel, Astronaut Mark Kelly and LeVar Burton, the host of Reading Rainbow. The two also got to visit a training site for the Marines — and all while getting home in time for dinner at the White House.

We Never Waited in Traffic… [Sigh]

This past January, following FLOTUS’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, we took what would be our last flight on Bright Star. When we landed, we climbed into the vans lined up on the tarmac. I remember commenting on the ride back to the White House that I was sure going to miss the motorcade — a guy can get used to not having to wait around in traffic!

So, the next time I’m waiting for the C group to be called on Southwest, I’ll think back to the experience of a lifetime — traveling with an incredible First Lady for an incredible Administration with a powerful mission to make the world a better place.

Featured image is an Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon.

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