While President Barack Obama was busy elsewhere Thursday morning, Las Vegas’ luckiest little VIPs were at the airport checking out his ride.
“It’s Obama’s airplane!” 10-year-old Brianna Whitfield shouted upon spotting Air Force One while on one of the coolest field trips ever.
She and a gaggle of other fifth-graders were touring McCarran International Airport, including its flight line. The tour, months in the planning, was nearly waylaid by Obama’s visit.
Instead, airport officials worked with White House officials to get special permission to surprise the kids with a drive-by of the president’s parked plane.
Three buses carrying 53 students from West Prep — a school near Martin Luther King and Lake Mead boulevards that serves primarily low-income, minority students — stopped just feet away from the plane. The already amped-up kids got even more excited.
“Is the president on there?” one asked.
“Are those Secret Service agents?” said another.
“Can we fly on it?” said a third.
Alas, an adult chaperone told them, the Secret Service wouldn’t allow the kids to leave their buses.
Still, the kids agreed, this was the best thing any of them had done lately.
Leah Sanz, 11, pressed her palms together and bowed her head for a moment.
“It’s an honor,” she said.
The kids may not have realized just how lucky they were. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, airport officials rarely have granted this level of access for field trips. The tour took a long time to plan and a lot of negotiation between the airport and the school.
It helped that the FBI also was involved. The bureau’s local field office joined alumni from its citizens’ academy this year in choosing West Prep for its adopt-a-school program. Some of the school’s fifth-graders were participating in a Junior Special Agents Academy — learning about the FBI in weekly classes. All the fifth-graders got to go on the field trips.
The airport seemed like a good choice. Many of the kids hadn’t stepped foot in one before.
“This is something they would never have gotten to experience otherwise,” said Jennifer Spigel , a teacher at West Prep.
Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker greeted the kids, telling them to expect something “really cool that not many people get to do.”
After stopping by Air Force One, the buses circled the airport’s runways as planes took off and landed. The students then gathered in a closed portion of the A gates, where County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly greeted them.
Then Flynn, a 4-year-old German shepherd trained to sniff out explosives, gave a demonstration.
“He has a very special nose,” said Kyle Chadwick, canine handler.
It was the second best thing the kids had done lately.
They were told to hurry through a snack — milk and cookies — because Obama would be returning to the airport soon. The students needed to be on their school bus and on their way or risk getting stuck while the president boarded his plane and took off to Colorado.
They didn’t make it.
“This is cool,” an airport spokesman told them. “You guys are caught in the presidential motorcade right now.”
Traffic was frozen, and the kids had to remain where they were – in a spot with lots of windows. They wound up with a great view of Air Force One taking off. They waved and cheered as though they thought the president could see and hear them.
“We were really lucky,” Brianna said before picking up a goodie bag that included a travel journal and a Flynn trading card. “I will always remember my first time at the airport.”