A British Airways pilot almost let the cat out of the bag over US President George Bush’s secret visit to Baghdad.
As Air Force One headed for Iraq, the BA pilot said on his radio: “Did I just see Air Force One?”
Air Force One captain, Colonel Mark Tillman responded: “Gulf Stream Five” - referring to a much smaller plane.
The anxious moment passed and was not raised again, allowing Bush to complete his astonishing visit to have Thanksgiving dinner with his troops in total secrecy.
Bush had warned that if his secret had got out then he would have called the whole thing off.
“I was fully prepared to turn this baby around, come home,” if news of the visit had leaked before we landed in Iraq, Bush said on board Air Force One.
Bush said he had been “the biggest sceptic of all” in the weeks of secret planning that went into the high-risk journey.
He said he sat down with Colonel Tillman, to ask whether the mission could be done safely.
“I had a lot of questions,” Bush said.
He wondered if he could get in and out of Baghdad safely. He also worried whether his visit would endanger anyone else or “cause an enemy to react and therefore jeopardise somebody else’s life”.
Three hours before landing in Baghdad, the president checked with the Secret Service again and was assured that the secret was intact.
News broadcasts, relying on official announcements, still said he was celebrating Thanksgiving Day with dinner with his family at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The trip remained a secret around the world until reporters on board the plane were allowed to file their first bulletins once Air Force One had safely lifted off from Baghdad.
On the approach to Baghdad, Bush went into the cockpit and watched Tillman bring Air Force One down, its lights off and window blinds pulled down.
If security had been broken, Bush said, that would have been the moment when the plane was most vulnerable, even though the president’s plane is defended with sophisticated devices to ward off missiles.
Most of the Secret Service agents at the Texas ranch knew nothing of the trip. Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice were driven from the ranch in an unmarked vehicle with tinted windows.
Both wore baseball caps, pulled low over their eyes. When they arrived at the airfield, Bush pulled his even lower and slouched down to avoid being recognised by a guard.
“We looked like a normal couple,” Bush recounted later.
White House communications director Dan Bartlett warned: “If this breaks while we’re in the air we’re turning around.”
Bush had told his wife, Laura, last month that he was considering going to Baghdad and kept her informed as the planning progressed. On Wednesday morning she asked him if he was going.
“I said it looks like we’re on,” Bush said.
His daughters, Barbara and Jenna, were informed just an hour before he left. His parents, former President George Bush and his wife Barbara, were not told until after they arrived at the ranch for Thanksgiving dinner, officials said.
Bush said the idea of the trip to Iraq was first raised by chief of staff Andy Card in mid-October. Bush said he wanted to do it but told Card: “I don’t want to go if it puts anybody in harm’s way” and wanted to make certain it could be done safely.
He and Card used code words when talking about the impending trip. The departure of Bush’s plane from Texas was explained by the ruse that it needed maintenance in Washington.
Retired Air Force Major General Don Shepperd, a military analyst, said he thought the risks “were absolutely minimal as long as secrecy could be maintained.” The risk also was reduced by landing at night reducing the threat from heat-seeking missiles and the fact that the plane has sophisticated anti-missile technology.
Vice President Dick Cheney was told ahead of time. Only a handful of aides knew in advance.
Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was informed last week. Secretary of State Colin Powell was also in the loop.
No member of Congress was informed in advance.
Card invited two reporters on the trip on Tuesday night on the condition that they kept it secret. Other reporters and photographers were brought into the secret on Wednesday, some of them searched out by White House aides in Texas just hours before the president’s departure.
In all, the press contingent included five reporters, a television producer and two-member camera crew, and five still photographers.
The president stopped at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington to change planes and pick up some aides. The switch took place in a huge hangar where the transfer was hidden from view.
Standing at the top of his plane’s steps at Andrews, Bush ordered reporters not to break telephone silence. “No calls, got it?” he said and emphasised the point by slashing his hand in front of his throat.
Reporters and photographers were ordered to surrender their cell phones, pagers and other electronic devices until the plane was airborne.