ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- It's probably fair to say that Lt. Col. David Steele is one of the top helicopter pilots in the Marine Corps, considering that the commander in chief has been a passenger.
Today, Steele leads Marine Aircraft Group Detachment A at Robins. But from 2004 to 2008, he was a pilot for Marine One during President George W. Bush's second term.
Marine Helicopter Squadron One, which has about 70 pilots, is responsible for flying not only the president but other top officials and visiting heads of state. Steele once flew Pope Benedict XVI.
"It was an honor to serve in that capacity," Steele said. "You do get to see the political side of things."
While military members aren't allowed to take sides in politics, Steele had kind words to say about how Bush treated members of the squadron.
"I was always impressed with his ability to take care of the White House military, even during the ups and downs of politics," he said. "He would always look you in the eye and speak to you."
Marine One is whatever Marine aircraft the president might happen to be on, but usually that is either the Sikorsky VH-3D Sea King or the newer VH-60N Blackhawk flown by the squadron. The helicopters are commonly used in place of motorcades for short trips because motorcades are much more logistically difficult.
A veteran of three tours in Afghanistan, Steele's regular job in the Marines is pilot of the AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter. The detachment at Robins has four Cobras, along with four UH-1N Huey utilities. The Hueys, which date back to the Vietnam era, are set to be replaced with a new chopper next year, Steele said.
The detachment is part of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 773, which is located at Robins. The squadron includes three detachments, with the other two in Louisiana and New Jersey. The squadron has 300 members, with 150 active duty at Robins and another 150 reservists.
The unit moved here three years ago from Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Atlanta as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
Steele said the base has "welcomed us with open arms," and the unit has been supported in every way. Every program on base for airmen is also available to the Marines.
"Working with the Air Force for most of us at this level is a new experience," Steele said. "The Air Force has got a reputation for taking care of its people, and I think that's what we see on this base. As Marines that cohabit on this base, in effect we are taken care of by the Air Force. That is one of the benefits."
Col. Chris Hill, installation commander, said the Marines are a different breed, and he loves having them at Robins.
"I think it's great for us as airmen because we get to see the culture of another service right up close," he said.