As a reporter working for WESH-TV, Orlando, I had the opportunity to visit AF1 Captain Jim Swindal at his home in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Framed photographs of his time with President John F. Kennedy while piloting F1 adorned his walls. He had wonderful — and sad — stories to tell. It made for a memorable interview.

Swindal considered the flight from Dallas to Washington, D.C., after Kennedy was assassinated, his most difficult. Room was cleared in the back of the Boeing 707 to return Kennedy home in a coffin.

Doyle Whitehead: Lyndon Johnson and his people were drunk, laughing and celebrating on Air Force One in the hours following JFK’s murder

“Doyle Whitehead: Memories of serving three U.S. presidents on Air Force One” by Ruth Laney for Country Roads on October 24, 2016

As a steward on Air Force One, Doyle Whitehead saw the making of history, such as this moment when Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Doyle Whitehead vividly recalls where he was on November 22, 1963, when he learned that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. He was aboard Air Force One (AF1) watching the presidential motorcade on television.

Riding in a slow-moving motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Kennedy was fatally struck when three shots were fired from the Texas School Book Depository on Elm Street. His wife Jacqueline, wearing a pink Chanel suit and matching pillbox hat, was seated beside him. Riding with them were Texas governor John Connally, who was wounded, and his wife Nellie. The Lincoln Continental raced to Parkland Hospital, where doctors made a futile attempt to save Kennedy’s life. At 1 pm, he was pronounced dead.

Confusion reigned as Kennedy’s staff tried to absorb the shocking news. “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Whitehead said in a recent interview. “We thought we might be under attack. Everything was in such chaos—you can just imagine.”

Whitehead, one of four stewards assigned to the president’s plane, had flown with JFK on every mission, including to Vienna in 1961 and Berlin in 1963, both important milestones for the JFK administration. That morning, he had flown from Fort Worth to Love Field in Dallas, where JFK and Jackie were greeted by an adoring crowd. Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his entourage had made the trip on Air Force Two. 

After the shooting, said Whitehead, Johnson, now president, boarded the plane and went straight to the cockpit, ordering pilot James Swindal to take off. According to Whitehead, Swindal refused. “I flew him [Kennedy] here, and I’m going to fly him home,” the pilot said.

About 2:45 pm, a bronze casket carrying Kennedy’s body was brought aboard. “The bulkhead and six seats had to be removed to get him on the plane,” said Whitehead. Jackie Kennedy, still in her pink suit covered with blood, appeared to be in shock. “I asked her if she wanted to change clothes, but she said no,” Whitehead recalled. 

After U. S. District Judge for the Northern District of Texas Sarah Hughes (a longtime friend) had sworn in Johnson, with a stunned Jackie at his side, the plane took off. Whitehead retreated to the cabin where the president’s casket lay. Inside were Jackie and her Secret Service agent Clint Hill.

“Now comes the bad part,” said Whitehead. “Johnson and his people celebrated on the plane ride back to Washington. He was a heavy drinker. He drank about half a fifth of Cutty Sark [Scotch] on the flight back. They were laughing and talking about ‘what we gon’ do now.’ They were so loud we had to shut the door so Jackie wouldn’t hear them.”

Washington was in mourning. On Sunday, November 24, Kennedy’s new mahogany casket was placed in the Capitol rotunda. Jackie invited the AF1 crew to share their grief. “It was a crew of eighteen people,” said Whitehead. “She gave us one hour with the casket. She came in for just a few minutes and told us how much he enjoyed Air Force One. He loved that airplane.”

Whitehead, who had been a steward on AF1 since the Eisenhower years, wondered what lay ahead. Even when asked to stay on, he wasn’t sure he wanted to work for Johnson, who had a reputation for being difficult. Today Whitehead tells stories of LBJ ordering a plane to take off without his wife Lady Bird when she ran a few minutes late and tossing daughter Luci’s excess luggage onto the tarmac. “He was mean and demanding, but at times he was jovial.”

How Whitehead came to hobnob with presidents as a young man is a story that seems to amaze even him. “I guess God intended for me to be there,” he said. “I grew up on a hundred-acre farm in rural Gloster, Mississippi. We were dirt poor; we raised what we ate.” 

[Read: Richard Lipsey was an eyewitness to the autopsy of President John F. Kennedy]

After graduating from Oxford High School in 1954, Whitehead had trouble finding a job. The Korean War had ended a year earlier, and veterans were given preferred status. “The closest employment within fifty miles was in Natchez—the Armstrong Tire and Rubber plant, a paper mill, an asbestos-siding plant. Fifty, sixty, seventy-five people applied for every job. They’d come out and say, ‘We gon’ hire two, and they gon’ be veterans.’

“I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be a veteran.’ I went to the [U.S. Army] recruiting office. I wanted to be a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division. The recruiter said, ‘It will be six months before I can get you in a class.’

“The Air Force guy said, ‘I can get you out today.’ So I joined the Air Force. I was in basic training, and I planned to go to school to be a heavy-equipment operator. But the Air Force had a dire need for air-traffic specialists for long flights to dangerous areas. They told us we would draw hazard pay. I would draw thirty dollars a month extra, and I needed the money.

“They had forty volunteers and they used a physical exam to do the elimination. I was five-feet-nine and weighed 132. I could put a hundred-pound bag on my shoulder and walk across a plowed field. I was one of twelve selected. My first assignment was to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington. I went to Greenland, Saudi Arabia, the Azores. We were flying back and forth, moving troops.” 

Whitehead recalled a harrowing experience when he had been in the Air Force for only six months. “It was 21 December 1954. We were coming from the Azores to Bermuda, an eight-hour flight. We were hauling freight and corpses. We got just about to the point of no return [halfway through the flight] when an engine went out on the right side. After another hour, the other engine on the right side went out. We were continually dropping. We had to jettison everything, including our own baggage, into the ocean. The corpses were the only thing we did not throw out. The landing was good. I felt like getting down on my knees and kissing the ground.”

In 1958, Whitehead joined the VIP Unit in Washington. “They needed twelve people to be stewards on three jets. These were the first three Boeing 707s, with four stewards in each crew. I wound up making that twelve. I stayed four months, going through an expanded background investigation. I had to have Top Secret clearance. 

“I was still young and green and learning and eager. In 1959, President Eisenhower’s plane was scheduled to leave in two hours when one of his stewards had a heart attack. They pushed me up on Ike’s airplane and we flew Mamie to Denver. I stayed for the remainder of the Eisenhower regime.”

When JFK became president in 1961, he invited Whitehead to be on his crew. “He was a jewel, completely different from Johnson,” said Whitehead. “He loved that airplane, and he loved us. In one of the rare moments he didn’t have a lot on his mind, he asked for a beer. I gave him a Heineken. The glass held ten ounces. He asked, “What do you do with the other two ounces?’ I said, ‘We throw it away.’ We weren’t allowed to drink while on duty.”

Whitehead recalled the president’s teasing him about the name of his high school. “He would tell people, ‘Did you know I have a steward on my plane who went to Oxford?’”

JFK was rumored to have had an affair with Marilyn Monroe, and Whitehead said the actress flew on AF1 twice. “She was listed as a secretary, not by name. She was a beautiful person to look at as long as she kept her mouth shut. She talked off the wall a lot, especially if she’d had a drink.”

Whitehead recalled slipping forbidden candy to young Caroline Kennedy, whose stern British nanny Maude Shaw wouldn’t allow the children to indulge their sweet tooth. “Caroline called me Whitey,” he said.

Whitehead flew with LBJ only through mid-1966. “A lot of things went into that decision. I was never home on holidays or special days, and LBJ was a terrible person to work for.”

In 1966, Whitehead got a one-year assignment to Vietnam, where the U.S. had combat troops. “That was the only thing I ever did in the military. We would do resupply missions. I was flying dignitaries into and out of Vietnam, all over the country. My one year there, I flew 665 hours in a combat zone.”

In the fall of 1969, Whitehead was assigned to a worldwide goodwill tour with astronauts Neil Young, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon on Apollo 11 in July. “We wanted to show them to the world. We went to twenty-four different countries, thirty-three different cities. The press chartered a plane to follow us around.”

In November 1970, said Whitehead, “I flew with Mrs. Kennedy to Charles de Gaulle’s funeral. I asked her for President Kennedy’s rocking chair, and she gave it to me. It was a folding chair with cushions to support his back. It went with him on the plane. He’d sit in it when he was preparing to give a speech. After he was assassinated, the archives got everything off that airplane—sheets, towels, anything he had touched—except for that chair. I took it off the aircraft and stored it in my office in case somebody called for it. When we flew to France, I asked Jackie if I could have it, and she gave it to me.”

Whitehead’s last mission was with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In January and May 1974, Kissinger engaged in “shuttle diplomacy,” short flights among Middle East capitals to deal with the fallout of the October 1973 war. “Every day we went to Damascus, Syria, and back. Every fifth day we went to Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Kissinger was friendly but absent-minded. He’d go to the bathroom and forget to zip his pants up. We had to look him over before he got off the airplane.”

Whitehead, now eighty, lives with his wife Barbara in Busy Corner, Mississippi. Last summer, he visited the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at the Wright-Patterson base near Dayton, Ohio. Its exhibits include SAM 26000, better known as Air Force One, which Whitehead flew on during the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson. He estimates that he flew nearly ten thousand hours during his career.

“When I became a steward in 1959, I had only been out of high school for five years,” he said. “I pole-vaulted myself from a hundred-acre farm to Air Force One in five years.” 

Air Force Steward Doyle Whitehead says Lyndon Johnson drank about “a fifth of Cutty Sark” on the flight back from Dallas to Washington, D.C. on the day of the JFK assassination. Which is the equivalent of drinking 10 beers in 2 hours which would give a 220 man a blood alcohol content level of .138 far above drunk  driving levels.

A “fifth” means one-fifth of a gallon of cheap Cutty Sark scotch. There are 128 ounces in one gallon. A fifth of a gallon is 25.6 ounces of scotch. One-half of a fifth of scotch = 12.8 ounces.

The alcohol content of Cutty Sark scotch is 40%. 40% of 12.8 ounces of scotch = 5.12 ounces of alcohol in one-half of a fifth of scotch.

If LBJ was drinking “half of a fifth of scotch” that would equal 12.8 ounces of scotch. Blood Alcohol Content tables list 1.25 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits at 40% alcohol content to be ONE DRINK.

12.8 ounces of Cutty Sark = 10.24 DRINKS consumed over 2 hours. For a man weighing 220 lbs, 10 DRINKS of scotch over 2 hours will give him a blood alcohol content level of .138 which is well over the level for drunk driving.

Lyndon Johnson in the 2 hours after the JFK assassination was far above the biological equivalent of a drunk driver. Blood Alcohol Content Level for men.

What Is A Standard Drink?

Many people are surprised to learn what counts as a drink.  The amount of liquid in your glass, can, or bottle does not necessarily match up to how much alcohol is actually in your drink.  Different types of beer, wine, or malt liquor can have very different amounts of alcohol content. For example, many light beers have almost as much alcohol as regular beer – about 85% as much.   Here’s another way to put it:

·         Regular beer: 5% alcohol content

·         Some light beers: 4.2% alcohol content

That’s why it’s important to know how much alcohol your drink contains.  In the United States, one “standard” drink (or one alcoholic drink equivalent) contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in:

·         12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol

·         5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol

·         1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, which is about 40% alcohol