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Who was the pilot who spotted secret Bush flight?

President Bush arrives in Texas aboard Air Force One, after his secret flight to Iraq over Thanksgiving.
President Bush arrives in Texas aboard Air Force One after his secret flight to Iraq over Thanksgiving.

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start quoteDid I just see Air Force One?end quote
-- British Airways pilot
Secret Service
George W. Bush
British Airways

CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) -- One of the most suspenseful moments during President George W. Bush's secret flight to Baghdad, according to the White House, came when a British Airways pilot spotted Air Force One soaring over the Atlantic.

The mid-air encounter, which aides say nearly prompted the president to call off the trip, became an instant news sensation, memorialized by tourist pins which went on sale at a store in Crawford within hours of Bush's return to his Texas ranch.

But days after the sighting, the identity of the pilot remains a mystery, even to British Airways.

An airline spokeswoman said this weekend that no crew member had come forward to report the unusual encounter, as is standard practice.

Bush aides recounted with excitement the moment during the flight to Baghdad when the BA pilot thought he spotted the president's blue and white Boeing 747 from his cockpit.

"Did I just see Air Force One?" the pilot radioed.

There was a pause. Then came the response from Air Force One: "Gulfstream 5" -- a much smaller aircraft.

As one of Bush's aides recounted, the BA pilot seemed to sense that he was in on a secret, and replied: "Oh."

With three hours to go, Bush had the Secret Service check if his mission was still secret.

"They assured me that there was still a tight hold on the information, that conditions on the ground were as positive as positive could be," he said afterward.

Bush's Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad captivated people in Crawford and tourists, who came to its tiny downtown to buy up mementos of the trip.

Large pins featuring the president's plane and the BA pilot's words -- "Did I just see Air Force One?" -- were sold out by mid-day Saturday.

In response to press inquiries, British Airways checked with its crews. But so far, no one has come forward.

"It is normal practice for our crews to report anything out of the ordinary," the airline spokeswoman said. "Despite the amount of media coverage, we can't confirm this."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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