TODAY | January 06, 2014
>>> look at the white house . of course, marine one, the return of president obama and his daughters to the white house from andrews air force base following their christmas vacation in hawaii. peter alexander was given rare access to the fleet and the people behind it. peter, good morning.
>> reporter: good morning to you. we're standing outside the west wing this morning as the president returns to work today. like air force one, the call sign marine one is only used when the president is onboard. but the presidential helicopter squadron also flies the vice president as well as foreign heads of state, even the pope when they travel here. and recently, nbc news was invited onboard. 30 miles south of washington, d.c., this high-security hangar is called the cage. it's home to the fleet of unmistakable white-topped aircraft, the helicopters designed to fly the president known as marine one. it's not a single helicopter, but more than 30 aircraft in all. this exclusive squadron is called hmx1, a hand picked team of more than 700 pilots, specialists and mechanics, like casey kirkpatrick.
>> among the things you check is the door.
>> yes. this is very important. the president sits right on the other side of this door.
>> reporter: marine one's been shuttling presidents since dwight eisenhower was in office. this is where richard nixon waved good-bye and george w. brought in his friend. 137 trips last year alone.
>> the best thing i do is stand out there and salute him as the crew chief . that's the greatest honor for me.
>> staff sergeant jason diaz is one of four marine one crew chiefs, elected by his peers and responsible for the entire helicopter. every minute detail is closely inspected, checking the engine, polishing the exterior, man manicuring the carpet inside. the squadron builds some of the parts. the final touch , the presidential seal .
>> what little details are you looking for?
>> everything has to be picture perfect . i look it over. once everybody's done, i look it over, make sure it's the way i want it. and if there's even the tiniest little smudge, i go back over and say, no, you need to redo that.
>> not just anyone can fly the president. after three years of training, only four pilots make it to marine one. among this year's class, major nate storm.
>> there's so much riding on that. the most powerful man in the world is riding in the back of your helicopter. it is pretty stressful.
>> that training includes hours inside a flight simulator . it challenges pilots to execute a precise landing. major storm briefly handed me the controls.
>> sorry. the simulator has a tendency to drift to the left.
>> next time, remind me to take my dramamine.
>> reporter: but nothing compares to the real thing. this is probably where it lands most often, white house south lawn . and nbc news was given access onboard as the marine one crew practiced takeoffs and landings with the president away.
>> reporter: flying 200 feet above the ground, combined to a narrow flight path winding around some of the capital's iconic landmarks. right beside the jefferson memorial , right turn behind the washington monument . that'll take your breath away.
>> this is what the faa refers to as prohibited air space . the only aircraft allowed in this zone is marine one.
>> reporter: and pilots rehearse each flight before picking up the president. the biggest challenge, the final approach and landing surrounded by trees on both sides, pilots say it's like flying between skyscrapers in manhattan.
>> you feel like you're putting a pretty big helicopter in a tiny avenue. marine one must line up perfectly with three red disks on the ground. putting it on the board pilots call it with cameras rolling and the world's most powerful passenger onboard. and the presidential helicopters also have unique security features that remain top secret . one of the things that struck me, savannah, onboard was how quiet it was. you can carry on a conversation very differently than on a normal helicopter or plane. six times you got a moment of a sense of what it feels like to be president. there were thousands of people below us giving us a better understanding of what it looks like to look down at the americans smiling up at you.
>> peter alexander , thank you so