Veteran served as a pilot to presidents

Fred Geier, of the Village of Glenbrook, joined the Marine Corps in 1971 after graduating from Western Illinois University.

Fred Geier dreamed of flying people around the country after college. He just didn’t imagine who he’d be flying.

In 1971, with a low draft number, Geier, of the Village of Glenbrook, joined the Marine Corps after graduating from Western Illinois University. He said he planned to earn his wings, serve in Vietnam and after a few years in the service, he’d take his skills to the airlines.

He got his wish to fly for the Marines. But instead of fixed-wing planes, he found himself flying helicopters. When he finished training, he had orders for Vietnam, but as forces were being drawn down, the orders were put on hold. Eventually, the Marines stopped sending new pilots to Vietnam and Geier’s orders were changed.

“At the time, I was disappointed, but it probably all worked out,” he said.

He enjoyed flying helicopters, so soon his thoughts of working for a big airline were pushed aside in favor of staying in the Marine Corps. He was trained to fly the CH-46 Sea Knight, an aircraft with twin rotors that could carry up to 25 passengers or 3,000 pounds of cargo. It saw service in the Vietnam War all the way through the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

Geier may have missed going to Vietnam, but he saw much of the rest of the world. He was on two deployments to the Mediterranean Sea. He was based at different times in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and he went on two more deployments, this time to the Western Pacific Ocean.

After some time at amphibious warfare school in Quantico, Virginia, in 1981, Geier took an assignment to HMX-1, the Marine Corps’ presidential squadron. When you see a president jump aboard a helicopter, it’s members of HMX-1 who are flying him. 

Geier had to get qualified on the aircraft he’d be flying, including the UH-1 Huey, the VH-3, a variant of the Sea King, and the CH-53. 

At the time Geier joined HMX-1, Ronald Reagan was president.

“The first time I flew President Reagan going into the South Lawn of the White House was one of the most exciting flights I ever had,” he said. “It’s one of the most memorable things I ever did.”

Eventually, Geier was made White House Liaison Officer for HMX-1. That meant that in addition to his flying duties, he coordinated the logistics for getting the helicopters to places the president was to visit.   

For his last year in that tour with HMX-1, he was a command pilot. Much of the time was during Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign, so Geier was a busy aviator. 

“You’re flying the most important person in the world around,” he said.

In addition to flying the president, Geier would ferry helicopters to wherever the president traveled. Reagan often vacationed in California, so Geier and his squadron mates would have to fly the aircraft across the country, a three-day trip.

“There’s nothing like seeing this great country, flying at 3,000 feet,” Geier said of the ferry missions.

After his assignment, Geier was back in Quantico for Command and Staff College before being sent to Okinawa as air officer in Headquarters, III Marine Expeditionary Force. He then was based in Hawaii and deployed to Japan and to the Philippines. In 1991, Geier was sent to the National War College in Washington before joining the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.

“I thought all the excitement in my career was over,” he said.

Not quite. He was then asked to take command of HMX-1. He spent the first year as executive officer, then was the squadron’s commanding officer for two years. 

This time, Bill Clinton was president. And once again, Geier was on duty during a re-election campaign, so it was a busy tour for him.

Geier recalled a trip from Camp David to the White House in cloudy weather. Clinton was boarding the helicopter when he asked Geier if it was safe to fly. Geier replied that it was, and it was good enough for the president. He jumped on board, even though the first lady was mildly concerned.

“It shows the trust they had in their pilots,” Geier said.

Geier left the presidential squadron in 1997 and spent a year in the Pentagon before retiring after 27 years in the Marine Corps. He then was program manager for the presidential squadron for Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut for five years before retiring again. He and his wife, Jean, built their house in The Villages in 2002 and moved here permanently the following year.

“We absolutely love it here,” he said.

Senior writer Steve Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or steve.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.

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