Garrett Litfin’s tenure as a helicopter pilot in the marine corps has taken him to presidential heights
By Matt Kane
WASHINGTON, DC Brothers know best. That’s what Delano’s Garrett Litfin found out.
While teetering on whether or not to apply for a position that would move him across the country, Litfin’s older brother, Grant, convinced him the prospective position was one he could not pass up.
“I looked at my résumé and thought I had just as good of a chance as anybody, so I decided to do it,” said Litfin.
That once-in-a-lifetime job was to join the Presidential Helicopter Squadron, otherwise known as HMX-1.
That’s the squadron that flies the President of the United States Barack Obama short distances from Air Force 1 to destinations around the world.
This is the position Litfin, who was recently selected for promotion to major in the Marines, almost passed up applying for.
“Every year, they put out a message a MARADMIN (Marine Administration Message), it’s called requesting applications for the HMX-1 Presidential Helicopter Squadron, but I loved California and wanted to stay there. I talked to my brother, Grant, and told him I was thinking about applying for HMX-1, but I told him I didn’t want to leave California and this will take me to DC. Either I was going to apply to HMX-1, or go to an infantry unit in California,” Litfin explained. “(Grant) said ‘You are an idiot if you don’t apply to go out there and at least throw you name in the hat.’”
Realizing his older brother was correct, Litfin sent off his résumé,
He got the job.
“That was just before my last deployment to Iraq,” Litfin explained. “About halfway through my deployment, they released another message and my name was on the list. I got back from my deployment and I had three or four months to pack up my bags, check out of my squadron, and head out east.”
With no blemishes in his military and personal records, Litfin made the cut to join HMX-1.
“They do background investigations to see if the applicant is clearable. If you have bad credit or too many speeding tickets or anything like that, they will toss your name out and you will not be considered,” he said. “It is a very scrutinized background investigation.”
Listening to his brother was the best thing Litfin could have done.
“I would not change my job for anything. I always wanted to live in California, and was hesitant to go to DC, but I wouldn’t take it back for anything. It has been an awesome experience,” Litfin said. “I have gotten to see a lot of things and places I would never have gotten to see. I have learned how the government works and have been able to see a lot of stuff behind the scenes that I never thought existed. It’s been an awesome experience. I would do it all over again. If they offered me four more years, I would stay.”
The flight plan
It is the job of HMX-1 to coordinate all aspects of presidential helicopter travel, and execute those plans.
“If traffic wasn’t an issue, we probably wouldn’t have this mission. We are there to provide timely transportation that doesn’t screw up traffic. If you had to shut down roads in major cities for a motorcade every time the president traveled, millions of people would be inconvenienced,” Litfin said of the duties of HMX-1. “Presidential helicopter support saves those people tons of time and it saves the president tons of time.”
As for Litfin’s specific duties in HMX-1, he serves multiple roles. On the ground, his title is White House Liaison Officer. In this position, he plans and coordinates everything that is needed during a presidential lift in Marine One.
“You plan for hours for a flight that may last 15 minutes,” said the 32-year-old Litfin. “(The president) is in the bird maybe 10 or 15 minutes. That would be a long flight. A lot of work goes into that 10 or 15 minutes. A lot of rehearsing and practice. If something gets screwed up, it will be headline news.”
It is up to Litfin to help make sure everything is in line for the president’s visit.
“We get all of the coordination done, so when the unit shows up, they can come in and set up shop. They’ve got rental cars ready and places to stay,” Litfin explained.
When in this position, Litfin flies commercial ahead of the squadron to the destination to make sure the logistics of the trip are set.
While being in one of the presidential helicopters as a copilot is the thrill of Litfin’s position in HMX-1, he is not complaining about his ground job one bit.
“It’s a good ground job to have. I have had a lot of cool opportunities to see some neat places,” he explained, who realizes the cool factor of his job. “We have some meetings in the White House, and it’s cool in there to see all the people walking around on tours.”
And then there is the job of being a pilot in HMX-1.
Litfin’s air position is that of both aircraft commander and co-pilot, depending on the mission. This puts him in one of the three helicopters that travels with the president.
The president flies in either a VH-3D Sea King or VH-60N White Hawk helicopter (both have white tops), and the rest of the presidential party flies in a CH-46E Sea Knight. When the president is aboard a helicopter, that helicopter receives the call sign Marine One.
The majority of Litfin’s experience as a pilot has been in flying the non-Marine One helicopters, but he has had a handful of flights as copilot in Marine One, with the president aboard.
“I was lucky enough to fly him and the First Lady on Sept. 11, 2011, both from the South Lawn to Andrews Air Force Base and then back again after they returned. They went to Pennsylvania that day. It was the 10-year anniversary,” Litfin said.
As far as personal interaction with the president, each flight concludes with the president’s appreciation to the crew on board.
“Every time you fly, he shakes your hand and thanks you for the ride and your service, and the First Lady does the same,” Litfin said.
That’s about it when it comes to interacting with the president. The Marines are doing an important job and know to respect the president’s privacy.
No matter who is on board the helicopter when he is in the co-pilot seat, Litfin genuinely appreciates the lifts over the scenic nation’s capital.
“When you fly through DC you have to be at 200 feet and below going through the city in order to stay out of Reagan’s arrival and departure corridors,” he said, referring to avoiding the airspace of the nearby airport. “You are cruising around looking at everybody on the Potomac. It is a lot of fun getting to fly through that area and getting to fly all of the machines.”
Ascending with HMX-1
Going on the road or in the air with the president is something earned during the four-year assignment in HMX-1.
During the first year in HMX-1, the Marine pilots are training on the three helicopters used in the squadron. In the years that follow, lifts that involve the vice president can become commonplace, and missions as a copilot on Marine One are assigned. The commander, or pilot, of Marine One is a coveted position that comes with experience in the fourth year of serving in HMX-1.
“They rotate the presidential lifts because, obviously, that’s a big deal and everybody wants to get in on those,” Litfin said.
The length of the assignment in HMX-1 is four years.
Litfin is currently in his fourth year. His assignment at HMX-1 concludes in June of 2014.
During the first two years, Litfin worked as an airframes officers in charged of 20-30 Marines, who perform hydraulic and metal smith maintenance on the helicopters. In his second year, Litfin was a schedule writer who developed training plans and managed daily flight operations.
“That was a cool position because it kept your situational awareness high,” he said.
The Osprey that Litfin is training in is a unique aircraft in that it takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies like an airplane.
“It’s an engineering miracle. It has redundant systems beyond redundant systems. The machine is reliable and safe,” Litfin explained.
The Osprey has been around since the 1980s, but developed a bad reputation early.
“It’s different than anything else I have flown, so I can see how people can get themselves in unusual situations. But, if you do what you are trained to do, it is a very capable and incredible machine. It can go 280 knots, which is good, considering a decent helicopter can go 160 knots. It opens a lot of doors for us,” Litfin explained. “They had issues with it at first but that is common with most helicopters when they are new. The CH-46, which the V22 is replacing, used to rip itself in half in Vietnam.”
The Osprey is currently being used in Afghanistan, and has recently become a part of the Presidential Helicopter Squadron.
“You will start seeing them more and more on TV in the next year or so, as we start using them during lifts,” said Litfin. “Who knows what’s down the road? It’s a pretty incredible machine.”
Litfin will fly the Osprey during his remaining time in HMX-1.
Earning his wings
The love for flying was instilled in Litfin by his uncle, Wally, a retired Delta Airlines pilot, during visits to California. With Wally’s help, Litfin become a private pilot in 2000.
Litfin quickly found out, while in the Marines, that flying helicopters, not airplanes, was the right way to go.
“During aerobatics training, I would lose my cookies. Five out of 10 times I would be fine, and five out of 10 times I would puke my guts out,” Litfin explained.
The Marines decided Litfin was better suited in a helicopter and not an airplane, and that decision turned out to be the correct one in Litfin’s eyes.
“It was a choice made for me by the Marine Corps. You give them your wish list. Based on the needs of your service at the time of selection they will have so many slots available,” Litfin explained. “When I selected, there were 18 Marines and there were two jet slots and 16 helicopter slots. Guys were coming in to training with a lot more instrument experience than I had. They were starting off ahead of the rest of us. When they announced there were only two jet spots left, I wasn’t too disappointed. A lot of my friends selected helicopters too, so I got to stay with some good people,” he said.
The style of war being fought in the Middle East made Litfin’s job as a helicopter pilot an important one.
“When the Iraq war was young, they needed helicopter pilots like crazy. That’s why I chose helicopters,” he said. “As a helicopter pilot, I feel like I contributed a lot more to that war. I know I made a difference.”
The first two deployments 2006 and 2008 had Litfin flying casualty evacuations, assault support, and general transporting of Marines and equipment. During his third deployment 2010 he flew strictly VIP transport missions.
The reality of war was flashed before Litfin’s eyes during his first deployment, when a friend was shot down and killed. Turning the Marines into a career was the furthest thing from his mind after the incident.
“At that point, I was staring down the barrel of two more deployments. My thought was there was no way I was staying in after I did my initial commitment. That would have been up in 2010,” Litfin explained. “Every flight was scary after that. War became real. To know I had to come back two more times was intimidating. The next two deployments went by, and I realized I could do this. It’s in my blood now.”
With the job of transporting injured Marines, Litfin saw the realities of war.
“There is some human emotion involved, but, on the bottom line, you are trained to do it. You put pressure on yourself because you don’t want to let the others down. It was a very humbling thing to see,” he said. “At the time, I was 25 years old and some of the kids over there were 19 and 20 years old. To see what they were going through; as a helicopter pilot, we would sleep in air-conditioned rooms at night and eat at chow halls, and they were out there in the streets. It is a little different story being in the air wing.
Being in that air wing didn’t keep Litfin and his crew out of the line of fire. In October, 2006, his helicopter was shot up while on a mission to pick up a wounded Marine.
“After they carried him into our helicopter and we took off two guys lit us up. They shot out our hydraulic boost lines and damaged our forward transmission, which are two critical systems. I was copilot at the time. I was halfway through my radio call when I heard the gunfire and saw the caution panel light up, then I realized what happened,” Litfin explained. “We rolled out and the city of Ramadi was right in front of us. The city was rough at the time, so I thought we would have to land in the middle of the city and duke it out to get back to the compound. Thankfully the other pilot had the wherewithal to get back to the compound we took off from, but we ended up flying right over the same building where the guys shot at us from in order to get there.”
This incident was unknown to Litfin’s parents for quite some time.
“He got shot down in Ramadi, and I don’t think we knew about that for a long time. That was not cool,” said his father, Jerry Litfin.
Not knowing what was going on with their son was commonplace.
“Some of the years were very long. I wasn’t grey when he went into the Marines,” Jerry Litfin said.
“The three tours in Iraq, I would never want to do that again,” said Gayle Litfin.
There is a chance the Litfin parents will have to endure another deployment. When his HMX-1 assignment is up, he is, again, eligible for deployment.
An unpopular decision
Litfin joined Army ROTC during his freshman year at St. John’s, and then joined the Marines between his junior and senior years at the university. He never thought the Marines would become his career.
“I saw a poster in the dorm room for the Marine Corps platoon leaders course (PLC) and a guy wearing a PLC shirt in the gym. It was a real hands off program. I went to Officer Candidate School (OCS) between my junior and senior year of college, but, other than that, they didn’t really keep in touch with me,” said Litfin, who graduated from St. John’s in 2003 with a double-major in communications and Asian studies. “They called me once per semester, just to see if I was still on track to graduate in 2003. Other than that, I wore what I wanted to class, grew my hair out and basically lived a normal college student’s life.”
The choice to become a Marine contrasted his initial interest in joining the army.
“I was this close to enlisting in the army out of high school, but my dad was begging me to try college first. The military was always appealing to me,” Litfin said.
He didn’t see himself as a Marine, as he wasn’t the corn-fed, “snake-eater” type, but the opportunities the Marines offered, along with some of the machismo that comes with being a Marine, were enough to convince Litfin that the Marine Corp was the way to go.
“I figured when you go to war, you want the crazy people with you,” he said. “Everything seemed to work out in the Marines.”
Litfin went to The Basic School in September 2003, and then to flight school in Pensacola, FL, in March 2004. He received his wings in September 2005.
After being winged, Litfin went to Camp Pendleton in California, where he began flying the CH-46, which he eventually flew in Iraq during his three deployments.
As far as Litfin’s future in the military, he is now committed to be a lifer with the Marines. At the end of his assignment flying the Osprey in 2017, he will have 14 years in with the Marine Corps, so serving another six years to retirement is an easy choice.
“I’m going to ride it out for 20 years and hope I continue to have good experiences and work with good people like I have,” he said.
The thought of retiring from the military was the furthest thing from Litfin’s mind not too long ago and the fact that he became a Marine at all was not a popular one at home.
“When he decided to go into the Marines, Gayle and I couldn’t believe it, so we went down to the recruiter and made sure he wasn’t sold a bill of goods. We were really upset about it,” Jerry Litfin said.
“Concerned,” Gayle Litfin chimed in.
“We knew he wanted to fly and we told him we would pay for his flight school,” Jerry Litfin added. “He told us in no uncertain terms that the Marines were important to him and that’s what he was going to do.”
The parents may have been opposed to their son’s decision, but have grown to respect his decision and his service to the country.
“We are really proud of him,” Jerry Litfin said.
After fulfilling his mission of flying with the Presidential Helicopter Squadron, Litfin will most likely return to the deploying forces of the Marine Corps.
In the grand scheme of life, 20 years is not a long time to work. Twenty years in the Marines, however, is much different, For Litfin, the first 10 years of this military life have been quite eventful.
Under his belt, he has three deployments to Iraq; he survived an attack in a war zone; he is actively flying a state of the art aircraft; and he has helped fly the president of the United States around the world.
That’s quite a résumé for a 32-year-old man from the small town of Delano.
Just think, if it wasn’t for some stern brotherly advice, this résumé might not include that job of a lifetime.