View From Above
Fishers Air Force Veteran Jim White Talks 20 Years of Military Service
Writer / Noah Alatza
Photography Provided by Jim White and Walker Photography
At 26 years old, he was given control of a multimillion-dollar airplane. He’s flown presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress and heads of state in a military service career that spanned 20 years. Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel and Fishers resident Jim White says serving his country has been the honor of his lifetime.
Originally from Lafayette, White attended Purdue University for premedical studies, and thought he would go to medical school. That pathway changed when White had a lottery number to get drafted. In late 1969, the United States held its first draft lottery, which gave young men a random number corresponding to their birthdays. The lower the number, the earlier those young men would be called to serve their country.
“I thought, ‘If I’m going to get drafted into the service, then I want to go to the Air Force and I’d like to learn how to fly,’” White recalls.
At the tail end of the Vietnam War, White was assigned to fly a C-141 plane. He was stationed in Southern California, where his flight paths often took him over the Pacific and through countries across Southeast Asia. By 1973 White had left the service to join a commercial airline.
However, he received a letter to rejoin the Air Force again in 1981, and says he could not turn down the offer. “They asked me to come back in because they needed experienced pilots,” he says.
From 1985 to 1991, White was assigned to the presidential support wing at Joint Base Andrews during the Reagan administration. He says he flew former first lady Nancy Reagan often, and she was a quiet lady.
“We really only talked about what the weather was going to be en route to the destination, or if there was any turbulence,” he says.
One of White’s most fond memories of working for the support wing included getting to know former Vice President and President George H.W. Bush, and former first lady Barbara Bush.
“I flew with then-Vice President Bush a lot, and he would always come to the cockpit and talk to us,” White says. “He had a good sense of humor. I remember Mrs. Bush was like a mom to everyone. They had a birthday party on board during a 1988 campaign trip, and she comes up to the cockpit and has half a cake, and tells us to ‘take this home to your kids.’ They were both just down-to-earth and caring people.”
White says he was comfortable flying high-ranking officials, and had a sharp attention to detail.
“Our job was to do the job no matter what it took,” he says. “We expected perfection out of ourselves when we would fly with a dignitary, and we would give them landing times while in flight. We got pretty good at being able to get them where they needed to go at the exact time we said.”
He says there was an element of excitement to the job.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous doing it, but the adrenaline would start pumping and the blood pressure would go up a bit the first time I flew someone,” White says. “We needed to be cognizant of what we needed to do, and we were certainly planning on being on top of our game.”
White also served as the director of nuclear airlift for the Air Mobility Command, where he was responsible for the transportation of all tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and South Korea.
“When I was flying nuclear weapons, we wanted to reduce exposure on the ground so I flew the first air refueling mission,” White says. “I did a lot of air refueling, which was fun to do.”
White met hundreds of high-ranking government officials and says it’s important to know they are normal people just like everyone else.
“There’s no greater honor than to serve your country, and I would encourage others to look at those opportunities,” he says. “I’m extremely proud to be a veteran and serve our country through great flying assignments. Everything I did, it was an honor to do.”
Since leaving the service in 1993, he’s remained active in the local community. From 1996 to 2001, he served as a professor of aviation technology at Purdue University.
“That was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done because the students we had were very competitive and smart kids, and they kept you on your toes.”
He was even named Purdue’s professor of the year in 1996.
“I think the reason was that I came from the real world and not from academia, and had a lot of war stories from my 20 years that I would take to the classroom, and it didn’t matter what you were studying – you could relate to something,” he says.
White made his mark across the world and here at home. He served as transportation director for Hamilton Southeastern Schools from 2003 to 2018.
From 2021 to July of 2022, White served as president of the Service Club of Indianapolis, which promotes the collective and individual interests of former service members.
“It’s just an amazing group and they had great stories to tell,” White says. “We had about five men in the group who served in World War II and many Korean veterans, and you could just walk in the room and feel that camaraderie.”
White currently serves on the board for the nonprofit Hollis Adams, as well as the Fishers Police Department’s advisory board and the Fishers Armed Services Commission.
“It has been a privilege to serve all these years, and I’m honored to continue giving back,” he says.