Ex-pilot Floyd Keller a witness to history

Floyd Keller holds a model of one of the helicopters he piloted while serving on the White house crew which flew presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter around.



QUICKREAD


When President Richard Nixon spoke, Floyd Keller listened.

And in doing so, Keller lived history.

Embroiled at the time in the middle stages of a scandal that ultimately would end his presidency, Nixon didn’t blink and Keller didn’t ask questions when his boss made an unusual request while sitting in a presidential golf cart in the spring of 1973 at Camp David, the president’s retreat in Maryland.

Nixon wagged his finger at Keller.

“You take this man out of here,” a gruff president said, according to Keller’s account.

“He is fired,” Nixon continued. “Do not land him anywhere near the White House.”

The out-of-favor passenger was John Dean, counsel to the White House from July 1970 to April 1973. Dean ended up pleading guilty to charges related to the Watergate break-in and testified before Congress.

“I ended up taking him to the Pentagon,” said Keller, a Grand Junction resident and retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who served from 1971 to 1977 attached to the branch’s famed unit that serves U.S. presidents, Marine Helicopter Squadron One.

“(Dean) was the only passenger on that flight,” Keller said.

While Keller’s six-year stint at the right hand of power left him with dozens of stories, he is reluctant to share detailed accounts of most of them and says he has not, and will not, talk about others under any condition.

“There are other moments I don’t even share with my wife,” he said, laughing.

Some of the tales are surely repeated when Keller and his former colleagues gather for their regular five-year reunions.

“You know you belong to a very select fraternity,” he said. “It’s the optimum position you can hold as a Marine Corps pilot.”

Keller, a Pennsylvania native, was given the option in 1971 to apply to the elite unit after he finished a second tour of duty in Vietnam.

At the time, there were 22 men serving with the unit, while just five had clearance to move the president, Keller said.

Roughly 75 percent of applicants to the unit were ultimately rejected for one reason or another, he said. The required flying expertise eliminated most.

“You have to be able to land that helicopter (three-point landing gear) on three pieces of plywood, each about 3 feet in diameter so you don’t make indents of the White House lawn,” Keller said.

Keller and his colleagues were also under constant law enforcement scrutiny with questions that often delved into the personal lives of crew members.

Given the choice in 1977 for another assignment overseas, Keller opted to retire.

When he pondered where he wanted to live, Keller said he remembered his trips through Grand Junction when he moved President Gerald Ford to and from various functions in Vail.

“Most of the guys retire in Florida,” he said.

Keller, who celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary last October with his wife, Babe, is a self-described political junkie and volunteers his time with the Grand Valley Combined Honor Guard. He also stays busy with several fundraising activities in the Western Colorado Shine Club.

“How did I ever have time to work?” he said, laughing.


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