Marine Corps Major Flies Helicopters That Transport President Obama

A story about an American Indian military pilot who flies President Barack Obama.

His military biography says he was born in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, and raised as an Army brat, traveling the world. Now Maj. Paul Bisulca Jr., whose family moved frequently because of his Army career-officer father, is a member of an elite group of U.S. Marine helicopter pilots who fly the president of the United States wherever he needs to go.

Bisulca, a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation, was welcomed by the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) as a modern warrior-hero on February 13 in Washington, D.C. and recognized for his accomplishments in an honoring ceremony among a group of veterans. The unassuming major, a member of Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron One, downplayed the event. “There was a recognition ceremony for accomplishments by Native Americans, and I was one of them, I guess,” Bisulca said. “I’m one of those Marine One pilots, you know, who land on the south lawn [of the White House] and fly him around, so that was what they were recognizing. That’s it in a nutshell.”

USET’s highly regarded Veterans Affairs Committee, led by Stephen Bowers of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Jeff Whelan of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe took part in the honoring ceremony, as did Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis. Bisulca was presented with a Penobscot honor basket and a bone-handled knife with the Marine emblem on it. “We did a couple of honor songs and some praying and it was all extremely well done and I was honored to be a part of it. We’re extremely proud of Paul,” Francis said.

In that ceremony, USET President Brian Patterson was effusive in claiming Bisulca as a hero for all of Indian country. “The USET family of tribal nations gathered our best hearts to extend appreciation and recognition to one of our true heroes of Indian country and to further present Major Bisulca to the world for recognition of his service record,” Patterson says. “USET is blessed to have among our people such a stellar role model.”

The pilots of Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron One—known as HMX-1—are a unique group. The squadron was created in December 1947 at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, as an experimental unit for testing and evaluating military helicopters back when rotary-wing flight was still in its infancy. The squadron first started transporting the president in 1957 when President Dwight Eisenhower, who was away on vacation, was needed urgently at the White House. Instead of a two-hour road trip, a Squadron One helicopter pilot was able to transport Eisenhower in seven minutes. HMX-1 pilots are rigorously screened for their Top Secret security clearance. There are only around 70 HMX-1 pilots and an equal number of support-crew members at the Quantico base.

Bisulca reported to Marine Helicopter Squadron One in August 2010 and a year later he piloted President Obama for the first time. The trip was from the White House South Lawn to Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George’s County in Maryland, where Air Force One was parked.

Bisulca says people always ask what it’s like to fly the president around, “and, to be honest,” he says, “it is hard to explain. You spend nearly a year training for the event, then when it finally comes, you are so focused on not making a mistake that you don’t have time to stop and think about it.” But there’s no denying that it is an exciting assignment, he says. “There are three moments when the wow factor really hits you, and that is when you are on your final approach to the South Lawn and you’re so close to the Washington Monument that you can almost reach out and touch it; when you’re sitting on the lawn waiting for him to arrive; and when he steps onboard and reaches out with a handshake and thanks the pilots for the ride. Those moments are always exciting to me and the job is never routine.”

Bisulca says he has flown the president 11 times and the vice president four times.

Helicopter Squadron One pilots follow the president wherever he goes in the world and are always ready to transport him. The squadron has the support of Air Force C-17s—massive military-transport planes that can carry helicopters, armored vehicles, tanks, trucks and soldiers.

Bisulca moved quickly through the ranks before his assignment with HMX-1. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant when he joined U.S. Marines in 2000 a few years after graduating from the University of Maine, Orono, with a degree in business administration. He completed helicopter training at Marine Corps Air Station, Camp Pendleton, California, and then with the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 161 in Miramar, California. From August 2003 through August 2006 he served two combat tours in Iraq, which included casualty evacuation, raids and search-and-rescue missions. By August 2006, he was a captain stationed at Twentynine Palms, California, conducting aviation fire support to the infantry Marines and assistant to the operations officer. Over the next three years, Bisulca worked at the Fleet Readiness Center East, Cherry Point, North Carolina, where he was promoted to the rank of Major.

Bisulca is married to the former Luz Melba Rocha of Bogotá, Colombia, and they have three children: Austin-Marie, 18, John David, 16, and Martina, 6.

Bisulca says one of the joys of piloting the president is watching younger Marines grow in skill and confidence. “Every time any pilot is providing aviation support to the president, it is a great honor,” he says. “However, for me, the best experience I have had is watching the younger Marines, some not even old enough to go have a drink, perform the most amazing and very visible mission, where you can’t make a mistake or have a bad day. We are always afraid to make a mistake when dozens of cameras are staring you down.”

Bisulca is not only a model for the younger Marine pilots at HMX-1, but also for the Penobscot Nation, Francis says. “Having a Penobscot at Paul’s level is just phenomenal. I told Paul I know he feels a million miles away from the reservation sometimes, but his story is certainly alive within the community and the example he’s setting for our young people and how our tribe is perceived is extremely, extremely important. He’s doing a lot to let people know that Indians in the military are still very much successful.”

It’s no surprise that Bisulca is service-oriented. He comes from a family dedicated to military service and to helping communities, especially indigenous communities. Both of his grandfathers were career military men. His mother Norma is a math professor at the University of Maine. His father, Paul Sr., is a West Point graduate and a retired career army officer who served as the Penobscot legislative representative in the late 1990s and as the chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission from 2006 to 2009. Over the past few summers, the couple has traveled to Guatemala to spend time in indigenous communities building safe cooking stoves and houses. While their son was being honored by USET in D.C., his parents were in Honduras, checking out the possibility of taking a group of Wabanaki students there on a service trip next year.

“It was such an honor for our son to be recognized at such an important event among the other veterans who really put their lives on the line,” Norma says.

“Native Americans are very patriotic and when it comes to making the ultimate sacrifice there’s no group in the United States that has really given as much as Native Americans.”

More American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the military than any other demographic group in proportion to their population. The National Congress of American Indians, citing data from the Department of Defense, says on its website that nearly 24,000 American Indians/Alaska Natives were serving in the military as of November 2010. More than 60 had died in Iraq and Afghanistan as of May 2011 and 445 were injured.

“It’s very hard for me to say this sometimes because being patriotic and going to war haven’t always been the best thing for us,” Norma says, “but they’ve made the sacrifice and done what had to be done, and for our son to be honored with that group of people who’ve given so much meant a great deal to me and Paul too.”

“He’s a good kid,” Paul Bisulca Sr. says about his son, understating his pride and giving a hint about where his son’s modesty comes from. Asked why so many American Indians choose to join the military, given the history of the U.S. government’s actions against the Indigenous Peoples of this country, he says, “That’s the first question that always comes to us. People need to realize that this is our land. This is where we live and when you transgress against this land you transgress against Native people too, not just the government of the United States.”

As for the recognition that USET bestowed on his son, it holds a greater significance than just the personal honor, Bisulca Sr. says. “I think what’s important about this is that for so long Native Americans have always known ‘their place,’ just like other minorities. You come to accept that’s the way it is and the terms they use to describe you. You don’t like it, but you accept it. I was that way. The thing is, now we say we are equal. We have equal capabilities, and when we have the opportunity to recognize that and celebrate it, it’s good for the community generally because it moves us all a bit further.”

Bisulca Sr. says he may soon have another reason to be happy—the family’s military tradition may continue for another generation. “Our son, John David, a junior at Colonial Forge High School, is very interested in attending a military academy, yet to be determined. Whatever he decides to do for a living, his mother and I will always be proud of him. As a member of the armed forces, it is always an honor to serve this country, and I look forward to him possibly having that similar experience.”