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Editor’s Perspective: My John Glenn Story


I had my first exchange with John Glenn when I was 12 years old.  The topic: Air Force One.

Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, was a hero of mine from an early age.  One of my treasured toys was a GI Joe Friendship VII capsule, which came with an astronaut doll modeled on Glenn and a 45 RPM record that played highlights from his historic 1962 mission.  So, in the sixth grade, I decided to write him a letter.

By then, Glenn was a U.S. senator representing my home state of Ohio. I wrote to complain that President Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy, who was my age, got to take fantastic trips around the world on Air Force One at taxpayer expense. We had elected Carter, I reasoned, not his daughter. It was not fair that she should receive such a perk.

Through some journalistic sleuthing – a close friend of my grandmother’s knew Glenn and his wife, Annie – I located his home address in Potomac, Maryland, and mailed my letter there, to make sure that he received it personally. Weeks went by, and then one day in the summer of 1979 his response arrived by mail.

“Dear Joey,” he wrote. “The duties of the President require that he often make trips abroad. If you or I wanted to go overseas, we would just buy a ticket on a commercial flight. When the President travels, however, he must have special protection and a means of communicating with our military forces at all times.”

“Air Force One is a specially designed Boeing 707 which contains all the latest communications equipment,” he continued. “As you can imagine, there is a great deal of space on the airplane, and so when the President takes his family along with him on the trip there is no additional expense.”

There’s a good chance Glenn handed off the writing of the letter to an aide, but I know that he signed it, as he steadfastly refused to use an auto pen.

I finally had the chance to meet Glenn in person – and write about him – nearly 20 years later, 

when he rocketed back into orbit in 1998 aboard space shuttle Discovery as a 77-year-old astronaut. I was Aviation Week’s space technology editor in Washington, and my preview of the mission appeared on January 26, 1998, on page 35. In person, I found Glenn to be gracious and (pardon the pun) down to Earth.

It is ironic to me that Glenn’s death on Dec. 8 at age 95 came two days after a tweet by President-elect Donald Trump ignited a firestorm about the cost and value of Air Force One (now a Boeing 747).  The GI Joe Friendship VII capsule now commands $300 on eBay. Mine was thrown away by my mother years ago. But I still have that letter. Godspeed, John Glenn.

Joe Anselmo is Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

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