Midstate Marine colonel flew through history as presidential pilot


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — From time to time, abc27 interviews an especially accomplished Midstater as a source of pride and inspiration. Their experiences are always interesting and that is certainly true this time.

Retired Marine colonel Pat Halton of Hampden Township was a primary helicopter pilot for President Ronald Reagan for four years.

“The nervousness comes from wanting to be perfect I guess. There’s only one outcome and that’s flawless execution,” he says.

He remembers the moment he got the assignment. “It was a feeling of, you’ve made me ready and I am ready.”

The campaign season of 1984 was the busiest, but no matter how many stops they would make in a day, President Reagan would shake all the crew members’ hands when he boarded. That graciousness extended to their stays at Camp David. The Reagans would invite their Marine One pilot to watch movies with them on Friday and Saturday nights.

“We sat behind them and afterward he would usually tell a story about the movie. He would know people in the movie or what transpired in their lives.”

Colonel Halton says that one night, Reagan explained that the movie they had just seen, had been considered so racy when it was released in 1934, that it almost was not allowed to be released. The movie was “It Happened One Night.” The scandalous part was when actor Clark Gable took off his shirt and he wasn’t wearing an undershirt.

In 1987, Pat got another plum assignment: fly Pope John Paul II during the Pontiff’s three day visit to Los Angeles. The Marine One helicopter’s call sign became “Shepherd One.” This one felt personal.

“It was a perfect combination of everything for me. It was a real honor for both reasons to be able to fly him both as a pilot and as a Catholic.”

When Pat was preparing to land the Pope in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium — a tricky maneuver in a crowded area — a sudden, meaningful gesture from the Pope.

“He slid open the window and his hand came through and he passed a pair of Rosary beads and a Scapular.” Those items are still cherished by his family today.

“When he disembarked and got in his Pope mobile, he turned and gave me the thumbs up.”

Pat went on to other prestigious assignments, including becoming Squadron Commanding Officer in Okinawa and North Carolina, Deputy Commander of U.S. Marine Forces in Korea and teaching at the Naval Academy and the U.S. Army War College. His final assignment was in Iraq, handling border security.

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