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Retired pilots say `Air Force One' is more like one air farce

The blockbuster Harrison Ford thriller "Air Force One" may be winning a big thumbs-up from audiences around the nation, but four retired pilots who flew the real thing give it a thumbs-down at least when it comes to getting the story straight.

The pilots, who served under five of the United States' last nine presidents, say the movie is long on fantasy and short on reality. They say, and the Air Force and White House confirm, that such high-tech goodies as an Apollo-sized escape capsule and a weapons arsenal won't be found on the presidential plane."It's pure Hollywood," opined Col. James Swindal, 79, President John F. Kennedy's Air Force One pilot, now living in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

"I think it's good entertainment," said Col. Bill Thomas, a Charleston, S.C., resident who spent eight years in the cockpit of a Lockheed Constellation used by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. "But as far as giving the public any practical feel for the mission of Air Force One, I think it's not worth a damn."

The movie stars Ford as a tough-talking president who takes on a gang of Russian terrorists after they brutally hijack Air Force One in hopes of freeing a jailed comrade.

The movie earned $37.1 million in its first weekend, setting a record as the top-grossing non-holiday film in Hollywood history. That narrowly eclipsed the previous mark set by the 1994 release of "Interview with the Vampire," which grossed $36.4 million in its first weekend.

Brig. Gen. James Cross and Col. Ralph Albertazzie joined Swindal and Thomas in expressing disdain for the film's accuracy. While neither man has seen the movie, both agreed many of the main elements of the film, like a bulletproof cabin and the president slugging a battle-hardened Russian commando, were flights of pure fantasy.

Col. Bob Ruddick, a pilot for President Reagan now living in Marlboro, Md., said he hadn't seen the film and declined comment. But he chuckled when told Ford's character guided the tattered Boeing 747 as its engines failed.

And he wasn't alone.

"You mean he was actually at the controls?" laughed an astounded Cross, a 72-year-old Texan who flew for President Lyndon B. Johnson and later served as his chief military aide. "That's ridiculous."

The ex-Air Force One pilots found the movie's use of the escape pod, weapons arsenal and bulletproof cabin just as hilarious. They also said parachutes used in the movie to spirit most of the terrified hostages to safety haven't been seen aboard Air Force One in decades.

The last time parachutes were stocked on a presidential airplane was back in the days of Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now 77, Thomas said the parachutes were dumped with the grounding of Truman's plane, the "Independence," and recalled that an engineer's suggestion to build a capsule never got off the ground.

Presidential air transport began in 1944 when a C-54 Skymaster dubbed the "Sacred Cow" began service for Roosevelt. The call sign, "Air Force One," was first used for Kennedy in 1961, and wasadopted in the wake of an incident in which the pilot of a passenger plane confused his tail number with that of Eisenhower's aircraft.

While the movie sticks to the facts in showing the call sign changing as Ford's character moves to a new aircraft, the pilots all but roll their eyes when thinking about how he gets there.

Medal of Honor winner James Marshall glides to the safety of a lumbering C-130 on a cable linking the two planes. "In flight?" wondered Lt. Neil Nipper, a spokesman at Andrews AFB, home of Air Force One. "That's definitely the magic of Hollywood."

A pair of Boeing 747s that are used as presidential planes can refuel in flight just as Ford's jet does and offers all the comforts of home, including a stateroom and a shower. Two galleys can serve up to 100 meals at one sitting, and the plane has protection.

Nipper noted that filmmakers accurately depicted the plane as being protected against electromagnetic pulses emitted from nuclear blasts.

But Jon Murchinson, a spokesman for the real president, Bill Clinton, talks like a politician when admitting the movie's Hollywood producers often jet into la-la land, saying "there are parts of it that aren't accurate."

He noted that Clinton has seen the movie twice, once aboard Air Force One.

Albertazzie, 74, a World War II veteran of the Pacific who flew Air Force One for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and later wrote a history of the plane, complained about some of the fiction in the film.

"When you take the call sign, Air Force One, which is a historical and a recorded thing that identifies a particular airplane supporting the president of the United States, and concoct things like an escape capsule and shoot bullets in a pressurized plane and not puncture the cabin, how can you live with that?" said an irritated Albertazzie, who lives in rural Hedgesville, W.Va., about 80 miles west of Washington.

"I can't stomach those kinds of things. That's just too much."