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Publish date: Dec 16, 2010

A pilot for the president: Central (Iowa) grad lands dream job

By Larry Happel
For NCAA.org

Nick Turner says he’s living the dream.

That was true in 2000, when he celebrated with teammates in a soggy end zone on a gray November afternoon in Linfield, Ore., after he helped the Central College (Iowa) football team sneak away with a memorable NCAA Division III playoff win. The Dutch scored a game-ending touchdown on a botched field goal try in overtime, a win Central fans quickly tagged “The Miracle in the Mud.” (A summary of that game is included in a 2007 NCAA News recap of miracle finishes.)

Nick Turner

It’s equally true 10 years later, as he anxiously guides a VH-3D helicopter onto a tiny aluminum disk planted on a sliver of land most know as the White House lawn, where he helps drop off a passenger, President Barack Obama.

“I’ve been riding a pretty good wave,” says Turner, a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., and a member of the elite HMX-1 Squadron, which is responsible for direct helicopter support for the White House.

It’s a long trek from starting free safety on the Dutch football squad to serving as a co-pilot for Marine One, as the helicopter is known when it ferries the president. Yet one could not have taken place without the other.

The notion of service, fundamental in the life of a Marine officer who travels around the globe, was instilled in him by several servant-hearted role models on the small campus in Pella, Iowa. But at Central he also developed the critical thinking and speaking skills he didn’t realize he’d need as a chopper pilot. His public speaking class proved invaluable, Turner says, but perhaps not as much as the lessons learned in business management classes with Jann Freed, the Mark & Kay DeCook Chair in Character & Leadership Development and Professor of Business Management.

“I give her a lot of credit,” Turner says. “She would make us do presentations and then looked at them from the outside in. She was very critical of us. She wouldn’t let us take the quick and easy path. But she helped us develop a different way of thinking about things and she did a great job of preparing people for professional growth.”

Turner also experienced growth on the football field. The Dutch posted a glossy 37-3 regular-season record in his four seasons, with three NCAA playoff trips.

“What I learned from the faculty and from playing football at Central – knowing the right things to do and making the right decisions when faced with a fork in the road – that’s what’s made me successful,” Turner says. “I wasn’t the smartest guy, but another thing Central teaches you is to not quit, to never give up.”

He valued the counsel he received from now retired Central president David Roe, a former Air Force Academy instructor who saw similarities between officer’s training and college football.

“I had a lot of talks with him,” Turner says. “He says, ‘They’re going to pound you. Don’t give up. Prove your worth. Continue getting back up no matter how many times you get knocked down.’

“That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

But he most cherishes the individual attention that is a Central hallmark.

“People and relationships – that’s the crown jewel of Central,” he said. “You don’t get lost there. The personal touch of Central is evident. At Central there are good people everywhere.”

After graduating from Central in 2001, Turner decided to pursue his dream of serving as a pilot by joining the Marines. Turner’s father, Larry, flew helicopters for the Marines in Vietnam and operates Turner Copter Services, Inc., a crop spraying and heavy lifting business in Elliott, Iowa.

Turner was based in Hawaii from 2004 to 2009, but served in Iraq for a seven-month rotation in 2007. He spent another two months in Iraq in 2009 followed by five months in Afghanistan.

Turner and a fellow officer planned and led Operation Khanjar on July 2, 2009. The operation was an offensive in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan that used 4,000 U.S. troops and included the Marines’ biggest offensive airlift since the Vietnam War. Turner spent nine hours hunched in the back of a Blackhawk helicopter that day, directing the mission and the 75-90 helicopters that were in the air at any one time.

“All the things I did at Central and in my life helped prepare me for those nine hours when I had to make decisions that affect people’s lives,” Turner says. “No matter what preparation you have, you never know how you’ll react in that kind of situation. Luckily, I must have got it right because no one got seriously hurt and the Marines were able to occupy the ground and take care of business. And they’re still taking care of business on that same ground today.”

The extensive preparation required for a military offensive reminds Turner of game-week study and training on the football practice field at Central, except that instead of saving touchdowns, he’s seeking to save lives.

“It’s repetition, repetition, repetition, to make sure that what you do in making a snap decision is something you’re able to do without even thinking about it,” he says.

In Oct., 2009, Turner was chosen to serve with the HMX-1 Squadron, an all-star team also known as the Nighthawks. The selection process was brutal. In addition to having logged 1,500 hours of flight time, candidates must have a spotless record in all aspects of their personal life, void of any hint of problems with credit or alcohol use. Even speeding tickets are examined.

“That eliminates a lot of people right away,” Turner says.

The HMX-1 squadron includes 80 pilots and 800 Marines overall, four times more than any other Marine squadron. Its sole responsibility is to provide helicopter support for the president, vice president, dignitaries and foreign heads of state.

Turner is in the first year of a four-year rotation, serving as a co-pilot. Only five Marines are allowed to serve as pilot for the president and each must be in the fourth year of a rotation. They’re selected by a board and Turner’s next dream is landing one of those spots.

“That’s a pretty coveted position,” Turner says. “And it’s pretty difficult to get.”

The squadron uses four kinds of helicopters, ratcheting up the pilots’ degree of difficulty even further.

“Even though the basics are the same, the systems, limitations and emergency procedures are pretty intricate,” he says. “It’s difficult to stay current with all of it.”

Turner flies two or three times a week, although he can sometimes fly three helicopters in a day. The rest of his time is spent as a schedule writer.

“It’s not that easy,” he says. “We have four different kinds of helicopters with multiple missions we have to fill with 80 pilots. That’s a lot to manage.”

He’s had the surreal assignment of helping fly the president three times.

“It’s pretty awe-inspiring,” Turner says. “He usually sticks his head in the cockpit and shakes hands with the crew. So I’ve shaken his hand three times.”

It’s often a short trip. But transporting America’s leader feels a bit weightier than running the kids to soccer practice.

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say it is an amazing amount of pressure,” he says.           

That’s even true in simply returning the president to the White House, where the helicopter must clear trees that closely hug the grounds before safely dropping on one of three small aluminum landing disks.

“On TV, the White House lawn looks enormous,” Turner says. “But I’m here to tell you, it’s not.”

Aside from serving as a convenience for the president, Turner notes that helicopter service saves considerable time and expense over presidential ground transportation, which requires extra security in blocking off roads and clogs city traffic.

It’s also a more secure way to travel. Wherever the president travels in the world, an HMX-1 pilot and helicopter are stationed nearby. Consequently, many of the pilots are away from home for 200 days a year, but unlike an overseas rotation, the days aren’t consecutive or predictable.

“You never know when you’re going,” Turner says. “You always have your bags packed.”

At 9 a.m. on a Saturday last summer, he was notified that he needed to fly to Pensacola, Fla., because President Obama wanted to inspect the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Turner was airborne two hours later.

It makes for a high-octane lifestyle, and Turner is grateful that his wife Kimberly and their four children allow him to keep living his dream.

“Sometimes you kind of have to pinch yourself,” Turner says. “You stop and think, holy cow, what I’m doing is pretty cool.”

Larry Happel is an associate director of marketing/media relations and the sports information director at Central College (Iowa). This story also appears on the Central website and the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference site.