Hamilton woman, Air Force One pilot rekindle friendship

As a student, Boots Huesing asked pilot to explain his job.

“I know that you probably won’t have time to answer my letter,” she wrote to Lt. Col. James U. Cross, “but I can say that I tried ... I thought if anyone could explain your job, you could do it best.”

Much to her surprise, he not only wrote back, but filled a whole typewritten page telling her how he became a pilot and how he got the job in the cockpit of Air Force One for President Lyndon B. Johnson and sent her two photos, one of Air Force One in flight and an autographed photo of himself.

The teacher posted the photos on the bulletin board. At the end of the year, he told the students to take the photos down, and she asked where the letter was. Turns out, it was nowhere to be found.

The thought of that letter left her wondering, and a few years ago, she contacted the White House on the chance that they had kept copies of the correspondence.

They referred her to the LBJ Library and Museum. They sent her not only a copy of the letter he wrote her, but also copies of her original letter and the thank you letter she wrote later.

So Huesing decided to try to contact Cross and find out what happened to him. She tracked him down in Texas, where he now lives, and for the last three years, Cross and Huesing have been exchanging letters and emails, rekindling a pen pal relationship that started over 40 years ago.

Last week, Cross stopped to visit Huesing her home in Ross Twp. as part of a trip around the area visiting old friends, including his former personal aide who lives in Northern Kentucky. On Saturday, they went to the Air Force museum in Dayton so that he could show her the plane that he piloted, which is on display there.

Cross, a native of Alabama and author of “Around the World with LJB: My Wild Ride as Air Force One Pilot, White House Aide and Personal Confidant,” was flying transport planes out of Andrews Air Force Base in 1961 when he drew an assignment to pilot a plane for Vice President Johnson. In 1962, Johnson tapped him to be his personal pilot in a Lockheed JetStar, an executive jet.

On Nov. 20, 1963, Cross delivered LBJ to Austin from Washington, D.C., landing at about 1 a.m.

“I remember he got off the airplane, stretched his arms and said, ‘Nice trip, Major,’ ” Cross recalled. “He always called me Major, even after he promoted me to brigadier general.”

Johnson gave Cross the details of what was going to happen during President Kennedy’s pending trip to Texas.

He told Cross to go back to Washington to spend some time with his family.

“He said, ‘God bless you, Major,’ ” Cross said. “I’ll never forget that.”

Following Kennedy’s assassination, Cross said he never expected to hear from the new president, but on Dec. 15, Johnson contacted Cross and told him that he needed to get qualified to fly a Boeing 707, and Cross served as co-pilot for about a year until taking over Air Force One.

“He was a gruff president and ate my butt out every day I was with him, which was about seven years,” Cross said, “and I heard from him almost every day.

“I learned over the years that he didn’t mean everything he said, and that sometimes he would eat me out in front of someone he knew was guilty of something but didn’t like them as much as he liked me — and I’m guessing he liked me because he chewed me out so bad — hoping that the person who was at fault would get the message.”

Cross took it as a compliment when he heard Johnson tell Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, “I know the Major isn’t too smart, but by God when I’m selecting someone on my staff, I expect loyalty 100 percent. They send me all these Ph. D’s, but when I want someone who is loyal, I’ll take that dumb old country boy every time.”