GATESVILLE — Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Jim Cross settled into his seat, glanced at his instruments and eased the big machine out into the sunlight.
In aviator sunglasses and ball cap, Cross, 87, shows the same calm confidence at the wheel of his beloved 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood that he displayed in the cockpit of Air Force One as he flew President Lyndon Johnson all over the world.
These days, Cross, a Gatesville resident, hears no voice on the radio clearing “Angel” (codename for Air Force One) for takeoff, just the soft strains of “How Great Thou Art” delivered in the unmistakable twang of Willie Nelson.
“Drives good, rides good,” Cross said of the Fleetwood.
Cross’s 11-year journey as pilot and military aide to LBJ was a memorable ride, although seldom as smooth as a cruise in his Cadillac.
Cross, the oldest of seven children, grew up in a house made from a railroad boxcar on a farm in south Alabama. From the first time he laid eyes on an airplane, he wanted to fly.
He signed up as a fighter pilot in World War II, but instead of dogfights, Cross flew cargo planes over the “Hump” — Allied pilots’ nickname for the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains — from India to China to supply gasoline to the nationalist Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek.
Released from active duty in March 1946, Cross enrolled in Auburn University on the GI Bill and took a part-time job as a carpenter. He and his wife, Marie Campbell, built a house and prepared to grow a family.
In 1948, the Air Force was calling up reservists for transport. Cross answered the call.
In 1958, Cross was assigned to the Special Air Missions (SAM) unit in Washington, D.C., tasked with providing air transportation for high-ranking U.S. government officials and foreign dignitaries.
One VIP, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, took a shine to Maj. Cross as a “can-do man” after a couple of demanding flights and made Cross his full-time pilot.
The world changes
On Nov. 22, 1963, the world changed dramatically for James Cross.
Cross was in Washington when he got a call from the duty sergeant.
“Red alert, major. President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas. Everyone is to report to their place of duty immediately.”
In Dallas, Lyndon Johnson was on Air Force One where, after helping lift John Kennedy’s casket on board, was sworn in as president before the plane took off for Washington. Col. James Swindal, who had flown for JFK, piloted both presidents back to Washington.
In a matter of weeks, Swindal would relinquish the left seat in Air Force One to Jim Cross. Swindal was glad to make the change. Kennedy’s pilot could not switch his loyalty after that dark day in Dallas.
On Johnson’s orders, Cross began training on the Boeing 707 that served as the president’s aircraft — although any airplane with the president on board is designated “Air Force One.”
Cross’s role on the Johnson team soon expanded beyond that of pilot. The new president made him military affairs director and assigned him an office in the White House in 1965.
Along with his flying chores, Cross had to maneuver delicately through layers of heavy brass at the top end of the military food chain, a lieutenant colonel speaking to generals on behalf of the commander-in-chief.
Cross was most at ease in the pilot’s seat. He flew LBJ around the world in four and a half days just before Christmas 1967, making stops in Australia, Vietnam and at the Vatican.
Johnson’s announcement on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek re-election came as a surprise to Cross.
“The Vietnam War had taken a toll on his energy, his health and his resolve,” Cross said.
Johnson wanted to make sure his loyal pilot and military aide had a safe landing. He promoted Cross to brigadier general — although Johnson would always call him “Major” — and assigned him to command Bergstrom AFB in Austin.
As military aide, Cross had been responsible for the president’s funeral plan. When the former president died at the Stonewall ranch in 1973, Lady Bird Johnson called on Cross, who had retired in 1971, to help with the arrangements. She insisted that Cross be her military escort at the funeral.
When Mrs. Johnson died in July 2007, Cross joined family and friends at the ranch to mourn.
“I have never seen such an outpouring of sympathy for one woman,” he said of the funeral. “Thirty thousand people lined both sides of Highway 290, waving flags and holding flowers. She was well loved by everybody.”