LBJ's Personal Pilot Visits ROTC Class
Retired Brig. Gen. James Cross recently entertained Baylor ROTC cadets with tales of his experiences as President Lyndon B. Johnson's personal pilot and military aide. Cross, who had a distinquished Air Force career, served as Johnson's pilot from 1961, when LBJ was vice president, until 1968.
"I never expected to shake hands with a president, much less become pilot of Air Force One," Cross said.
The general began his military career as a second lieutenant in World War II flying transport aircraft in the Army Air Corps. He became a member of the Air Force Reserve in 1946 but was recalled to active duty in 1948. Over the next decade, he served at bases in the Philippines, South Carolina, Newfoundland and Delaware. In 1958, he was sent to Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., where he served as a pilot for VIP aircraft. In 1961, he began his 11-year association with Johnson.
"LBJ could be tough, difficult and demanding, and he delighted in telling stories," Cross said. "He loved to refer to me as 'Major,' even when I had been promoted to one-star general."
Cross told the assembled students about the time that Air Force One had to undergo maintenance.
"It was at Thanksgiving and Air Force One was long overdue for some routine maintenance that would take two or so months," Cross said. "I told the President that we needed to get this done, and he said that was fine, that he had no travel plans for the next couple of months.
"Then in mid-December, we were notified that the Australian prime minister, who was a close friend of the President, had died. Johnson told me that we would be flying to the memorial service and to get Air Force One ready. I reminded him that the aircraft was in New York at Lockheed undergoing a major overhaul. He told me to go get it. I told him that I had just been up there, and the airplane was literally in pieces on the floor. Johnson said that was fine, that he didn't need to leave until the next day so there would be time to put the aircraft back together. I finally convinced him that we would need to take another airplane."
In addition to serving as presidential pilot, Cross directed the White House military office, and as such, acted as the principal advisor to the White House for all military support. He was responsible for the White House motor pool, staff mess, Camp David and the Presidential Airlift Group and oversaw approximately 700 military personnel.
"I was not in a position to influence policy, but worked primarily with logistics," Cross explained.
Cross served as Johnson's pilot and military aide until 1968, when he began a short tour of duty in Vietnam. Promoted to Brigadier General in July 1969, he returned to the U.S. that year as commander of the 75th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin. But he stayed in contact with his former commander-in-chief. In fact, LBJ thought so highly of Cross that he entrusted his former pilot with carrying out his last wishes.
"For years, I carried with me the funeral plan that Johnson had worked out for himself," Cross said. "When he died in 1973, I met with Mrs. Johnson to discuss what he had wanted.
"I know that many people grade LBJ's presidency low, but I personally think he deserved better."
Cross now lives on a ranch in Coryell County and is working on a book, tentatively titled "Angel is Airborne," about his experiences with LBJ.