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Reagan and the “Turkey Bird”

Today’s post is by Duke Blackwood, Director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Follow them on their Facebook page.

President Reagan during the presentation of the Thanksgiving turkey from National Turkey Federation President William Prestage and Executive Vice President Lew Walts in the Rose Garden, 11/23/1982. (Reagan Library, C11441-20)

One normally doesn’t associate turkeys with flying.  However, in 1966 they became synonymous with flight during Ronald Reagan’s first race for political office—Governor of California. Covering such a large state was advance man Curtis Patrick’s nightmare, as Reagan was reticent to fly and preferred to drive. But it soon became a necessity for the candidate to fly.

Enter Mervin Amerine, a former B-29 Superfortress pilot turned turkey farmer who had three DC-3 aircraft capable of ferrying up to 48,000 live baby turkeys per plane to various destinations.

The DC-3 was a workhorse in World War II, which made it well suited for flying to remote campaign locations that often did not have paved runways.  Being a huge fan of Mr. Reagan, Amerine offered one of his planes to the campaign. Of course, only after he had cleaned it up and added 28 seats.

On a bright and beautiful day in the idyllic town of Calistoga, California, Patrick introduced Ronald Reagan to Amerine on a weed-infested gravel runway. With the press corps in tow, they all boarded this now-glistening aircraft for the inaugural flight to Angel’s Camp. Adding an air of sophistication was Mrs. Amerine, who served as the plane’s stewardess.

Buckled in for safety, all on board seemed a bit anxious. Would they make it? Rumbling down the short 80-foot runway (shorter than the landing deck of the USS Ronald Reagan), the engines roared as journalists, campaign staff, and the future President were shaken in the newly minted campaign plane. The wash of the propellers created a huge cloud of dust that engulfed the small northern California town.

As soon as the plane was airborne, the entire press corps in unison gobbled like turkeys and roared their approval! Thus the Turkey Bird was officially christened and went on to fly candidate Reagan to small towns throughout California.

As we prepare for one of our country’s most cherished holidays, let’s give thanks to the freedoms we enjoy, and while we’re at it, a special thanks to the Amerines for flying candidate Reagan on the Turkey Bird. Without that converted aircraft,  history would have had a very different look.

President Reagan said, “Mr. Amerine has done more to ease my concerns about flying than anybody.” After being elected President, he invited Mr. and Mrs. Amerine to the White House for the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon ceremony.

The 40th Thanksgiving turkey stretches its wings during the ceremony in 1982. (Reagan Library, C43795-20)

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