Kevin Kelly talks with the Kansan who piloted Pope John Paul II during his first U.S. visit in the upcoming edition of the Catholic Key:
LAWRENCE, Kan. — Pope John Paul II, fresh from a rain-soaked Mass on the Boston Commons, gave the baby-faced pilot of Shepherd I a bear hug. Then held he held him at arm’s length for a good look, and proclaimed, “You are so young!”
The 32-year-old Nelson Krueger, stunned to be unexpectedly face-to-face with the pontiff in the airliner’s cockpit, replied with the first words that came to his mind: “You are so wet!”
The pope let out a big laugh and looked Krueger straight in the eyes.
“The guy was so warm and friendly,” Kreuger told The Catholic Key. “There I was face-to-face with the Holy Father. Our eyes met, and those millions of bits of information that happen in such a moment were exchanged.”
It was the start of a relationship that would last a week, and, to this day nearly 32 years later, one that the pilot would remember in minute detail for the rest of his life.
Krueger was already one of the top international pilots for Trans World Airlines when he was hand-selected by Capt. Sal Fallucco, the airline’s director of flight operations, to sit in the left seat for Pope John Paul’s first pastoral and state visit to the United States from Oct. 1-7, 1979.
Krueger, now retired and living in Lawrence, was on a layover in St. Louis in mid-September when he got the call from TWA’s chief scheduler to get back to headquarters in Kansas City right away.
“They said, ‘Go to the overhaul base. We are fitting a plane for Pope John Paul II. You are going to oversee that, because you are going to fly it,’” he said.
“I almost died,” Krueger said. “I was speechless. I was stunned.”
As pilot, Krueger and co-pilot Clarence Powell would take the pope from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Des Moines to Chicago — an itinerary that was always behind schedule because the pontiff could not be pried from the millions who came to see him at every stop.
“He had to meet everybody,” Krueger said.
Krueger had seen the world and would see much more of it before his days as a Boeing 727 pilot would end. He had seen the pyramids of Egypt, the Holy Land, nearly all of Europe, Asia and India.
He had flown the rich, the famous, and the infamous.
But this is the trip that still brings tears to his eyes.
And Krueger is a Methodist.
“It’s taken 32 years to have this sink in,” he said from his home overlooking a golf course in western Lawrence, where he has dedicated a room to his memorabilia of years behind the controls, and much of it dedicated to the flight of Shepherd I, including scores of photographs, newspaper articles, and even copies of Time, Life, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, all with Pope John Paul II on the cover.
“This beats everything I have done in my life,” Krueger said. “There is no higher peak in my human experience than the time I got to pilot Shepherd I.”
Even for a Christian of another tradition.
“He was the pope of all people,” Krueger said. “I know a lot of Methodists and Presbyterians and Baptists who view him as their pope too. He allowed all of us to revisit and deepen our calling as Christians.
“He just loved people — all people,” he said. “He was just so warm and friendly with everybody he met.”
Pope John Paul II was 59 and just a year from his election when he began to build a reputation for globe-hopping. He was filled with boundless energy, even after long days in front of crowds that number in the millions.
Earlier that year, he had gone to Mexico, then to a historic pastoral visit to his native Poland, still under communist control, meeting millions at every stop.
His first U.S. visit was preceded by a pastoral visit to Ireland, where nearly a third of the island’s population attended Mass with him, and where his schedule of 16-hour days would kill a mule.
But not the pontiff that Nelson Krueger met, and grew to know better on that six-day tour of the United States. He drew energy from people who came by the hundreds of thousands everywhere he went, including airport tarmacs.
Still, the pope had time for his flight crew.
Pope John Paul II signed Krueger’s family Bible. And he blessed a rosary once owned by the Catholic grandmother of Krueger’s father-in-law. (When he returned it, his father-in-law pressed it back into the pilot’s hand. “This is for you,” he said, as tears filled both men’s eyes.)
Krueger also showed his 12-string Takamine guitar that Pope John Paul II played during a delay in the takeoff from Philadelphia to Des Moines.
Waiting for clearance to take off, Krueger unpacked his guitar and strummed a chord. Like a shot, the pontiff raced to the cockpit, a phalanx of cardinals, bishops and reporters right behind.
“He looked at the guitar, so I handed it to him,” Krueger said. “He started strumming it, then he adjusted two strings by ear. Then he strummed a full C chord and belted out ‘Silent Night,’ in a big, full, nice voice.
“Then he looked at me and nodded, like, ‘Aren’t you going to join in?’ so I did. Soon, everybody was singing, ‘Holy night. All is calm, all is bright.’”
By the time the song was finished, the flight had received its clearance. Krueger put the guitar back it its case with a TWA sticker, telling the pope that TWA meant, “This Way America.”
“Oh, no,” said the pope. “It means, ‘Traveling With Angels.’”
“Everybody in the press heard that,” Krueger said.
The skies over Des Moines were overcast, but cleared when Shepherd I broke through the clouds. Then the weather turned picture-perfect for the papal Mass in Joe Hays’ Miracle Farm pasture with 400,000 people.
It was a stop that the pope himself added to his U.S. itinerary after Hays personally wrote to him that the backbone of America was its farms. This was in the midst of the worst farm crisis in the nation since the Great Depression, and one the pontiff couldn’t resist expressing his solidarity.
They were supposed to leave Des Moines in time for the pope to arrive in Chicago by 8 p.m. It wasn’t going to happen. The pope spent so much time in Iowa, especially with Hays, that the flight didn’t arrive at O’Hare Airport until past 10 p.m.
Not a soul among the people who waited extra hours for a glimpse of the pope left the Chicago airport. He disembarked to the cheers of a half a million people.
The next day, Krueger and the flight crew were issued press passes to attend the Mass in Grant Park, with a million Chicagoans.
It was at that moment that Krueger began to realize more deeply that he was witnessing something far greater than he could imagine.
“Here he comes with his miter and crozier. He gets to the altar and says, ‘I look up and I see you, the people of God.’ He has no doubt that his presence is enough to bring these people together.”
“For two hours, Grant Park was a gleaming cathedral, with this leader of over a billion people at the center of it all,” Krueger said.
Standing next to Krueger was Jeff Lyons, reporter for The Chicago Tribune.
“Lyons turned to me and said, ‘Isn’t he a great guy?’” Krueger said. “What higher thing can anyone say about you?”
On the final leg of the trip from Chicago to Washington, D.C., Pope John Paul II asked to see his pilot one more time. This time, he presented Krueger with two gifts — one of 99 crystal obelisks he had commissioned with etchings of a monstrance and cross, and a solid platinum medal with Pope John Paul II’s image.
Thirty-two years later, Krueger — the hard-boiled pilot who had done it all, seen it all — still has to wipe his eyes as he takes it from the special case in his special den, dedicated to both airline history and to the flight of Shepherd I, half his lifetime ago.
And he is not ashamed to admit he cried when the pontiff died in 2005, suffering for years with Parkinson’s.
“You knew he was dying, but it still got to me,” he said. “I was thankful in one respect because he had suffered so much. I thought about going to the funeral, but so did a lot of people, and I didn’t.”
He did make one special trip to the Vatican.
Krueger was on a special assignment in the fall and winter of 1991, flying U.S. soldiers to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Operation Desert Storm. On the morning of Christmas Eve, he and his crew had a layover in Rome.
Krueger went to the Vatican with a note he handed to the Swiss Guards for Msgr. Thaddeus Rakoczy, the pope’s personal secretary whom he had met 12 years before, asking if they could attend Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Before he got back to the hotel, he had a message.
“He remembered me,” Krueger said. “He told us to arrive two hours early in uniform with our identification.”
Krueger and his flight crew were seated in the seventh pew, five seats from the center, as they watched the preparations for the papal Mass.
“I would have sat there for a week,” Krueger said.
When he landed Shepherd I for the last time in 1979 and bid the pontiff farewell, Krueger and his flight crew quietly returned to Kansas City, then to his home in Lawrence.
“I picked up my wife and kids, and we went to a Kansas University football game,” he said. “But I was forever changed.”
(Top pic – 32 year old Krueger dries the papal cape in the cockpit air vent. Bottom – Krueger now with the medal Pope John Paul II gave him. Photos – Courtesy of Nelson Krueger)