For a guy who has spent the past 18 months flying former President George W. Bush, and now President Barack Obama, all around the world, it was Col. Ray L’Heureux’s “victory lap” over the National Mall with Bush and his family on Inauguration Day this January that he will cherish the most.
“Just when you think you’ve got the memory, another one gets tacked on,” says L’Heureux, the Commanding Officer of Marine Helicopter Squadron One. “Of all the great things we have done supporting the former President, Inauguration Day was one of those days that I will absolutely remember, saying goodbye to the one president that I got comfortable and personal with.”
As the commanding officer of HMX-1-, the helicopter that transports the President of the United States, L’Heureux, a former Salem High School student, is responsible for not only the executive helicopter that he pilots and his cargo (the President, more often than not), but also the approximately 800 Marines under his command. L’Heureux frequently flies the President to events around the country and the globe. To do that, he must oversee the breakdown of the helicopter, which is then loaded into a cargo plane and re-assembled at the destination.
During his sophomore year at Salem High School, L’Heureux says he first knew that he would fly some day, but was unsure of how or when. It wasn’t until college (Nathaniel Hawthorne College in Antrim, NH) when a recruiter from the Marines made an impression with him that sealed the deal. He enlisted in 1980 and served his first tours as a Presidential pilot from 1992-1996 for then Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. He says that it has been a dream job for him to command the Marines of HMX-1. “This is the pinnacle job as a Marine helicopter pilot; from a flying and command perspective, a whole lot of things have to be lined up for this job. My timing was impeccable.”
While Col L’Heureux’s tour of duty as the Presidential helicopter pilot comes to an end this summer, he has had the honor of shuttling President Obama to numerous events around the country. “President Obama seems very appreciative of the service that we provide,” he says. “He is very cordial and has a wonderful family.”
But what of the North Shore? L’Heureux still has family in the area and visits from time to time. He says he longs for the restaurants on Derby Street in Salem but it is his next assignment that will keep him far from the Atlantic coast. When Col L’Heureux’s tour of command at the helm of HMX-1 ends this summer, he’s off to Hawaii where he will serve as Chief of Staff for Marine Forces Pacific. Tough duty, we know. –Jack Morris