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ALOHA, COMMANDER

A SIT-DOWN WITH THE FORMER COMMANDING OFFICER AND PILOT OF THE MOST RECOGNIZABLE HELICOPTER IN THE WORLD – AT HIS FAVORITE WAIKIKI LOCALE – THE MODERN HONOLULU

On any given weeknight, you might find a cheerful, content gentleman with the nickname "Frenchy" reclining in the outdoor lounge at Morimoto Waikiki, located at THE MODERN HONOLULU. As the flames in a nearby fire pit are lit, the sun sinking behind the tall yachts in the harbor, Ray L'Heureux will take a sip of tea and relish in both the bounty of fish in front of him – and the good company of dear friends that have joined him at his favorite leisure spot.

This may sound like a common occurrence and familiar mood at THE MODERN HONOLULU. But Ray L'Heurux's story is anything but typical. This 52 year old retiree ("I feel like I'm 18," he will later say) was the highest-ranking Marine helicopter pilot in the United States of America. He commanded Marine One – and a squadron of 750 Marines it takes to maintain the effort – for the most recent four Presidents of the United States. His story is one of a boy that, quite simply, "Wanted to fly" and peaked with an appointment to the most coveted of all jobs within his given branch of the service.

And yet, his story – which could easily end here – has only just begun. Just as he was settling into easy Honolulu living, in a lofty downtown suite overlooking the Pacific, yet another opportunity came knocking. L'Heureux was appointed to the Hawaii Department of Education to try and give Hawaii's youth a better chance at succeding.

We sat down with L'Heureux at Morimoto Waikiki in THE MODERN HONOLULU to chat about what makes Hawaii special and his exciting life flying Marine One. 

Q: You "attempted retirement" here in Hawaii. Having "seen the world" for 30 years as a Marine, how did you come to settle in Honolulu?
Ray L'Heureux: I lived in many different parts of the U.S., and visited an untold number of countries during my 30 year career as a Marine. Having been stationed in Hawaii, for 12 years during three separate tours while serving in the Marine Corps, I had begun to feel this sense of place. Aloha became part of me...it got into my blood. And like everyone that lives here – you miss it the moment you are somewhere else. It is the one place on the planet I love coming home to. The absence of hurriedness, an emphasis on Aloha and Ohana, the lifestyle and beaches are just few of the many attributes that made me call it home.

Q: Would you share some of your favorite activities here? Is your current idea of adventure trying out a hole-in-the-wall sushi joint and a new art gallery? Or is the thrill of flying still required for an adrenaline blast?
L'Heureux: My active lifestyle fits in perfectly with living in Hawaii. Heading to Kailua, Mokuleia, Waimanalo, or Makena are staples for me when it comes to enjoying Hawaii's beaches. Boating with my good friends occupies a lot of my time as well. Favorite pastimes include Art After Dark (at the Honolulu Museum of Art) and First Friday. The new Kaka'ako Night Market's have been enjoyable to watch develop as well. The culinary experiences – not to mention the pubs – in Kaimuki and Kaka'ako are some of the best in the state.

Q: What's your favorite single location on O'ahu?
L'Heureux: It is hard to pick a favorite spot. But if I had to nail it down...it would be on my lanai in Kaka'ako, at sunset, staring out into one of the most beautiful views on the planet.

Q: So you spend a lot of time at THE MODERN HONOLULU. What is it about the hotel – you've mentioned "the vibe" before – that others don't have?
L'Heureux: I never would have thought that a hotel would be one of the places that I might hang at with regularity. THE MODERN HONOLULU is different. It does not have the hubbub that accompanies most of the hotels in Waikiki. The ease of parking and entry and location is also a draw for me. More importantly is the staff and friends I have made at THE MODERN HONOLULU, from the valet crew all the way to the executive leadership. They present that friendly sense of place and Aloha spirit that draws you back. There is an adult vibe to the property as well that is attractive. I hold many meetings and business dinners there, and it's the first place I bring out of town visitors when showing Honolulu's range of offerings. And all my local friends just love the atmosphere. The pool bar and the Sun Suite are two of my favorite spots on property.

Is it too late to add eating a meal on the lanai of Morimoto's to my "Favorite Place on Oahu" list?

Q: Your book ("Inside Marine One: Four U.S. Presidents, One Proud Marine, and the World's Most Amazing Helicopter" by L'Heureux/Kelley, St. Martin's Press; releases May 27, 2014) is coming out this spring. Can you talk about what readers can expect?
L'Heureux: What people can expect from this book is an anecdotal story of my career. What began as a simple boyhood dream – to become a pilot – and the rise to commanding the largest squadron in the Marine Corps and being the Presidents' personal helicopter pilot. The book is significant because of my experience in the squadron – and the privilege it was to be allowed to serve our last four presidents – including the current one.

Q: Why is this book different from others in the same vein?
L'Heureux: We know everything about Air Force One; but I think folks will be fascinated by this memoir written by a Marine One pilot and a former commander of the unit. Helicopters are a lot more intimate than giant aircraft like a 747, and sharing such close proximity to world leaders was an extremely special and unique persepective. I was in a position to closely observe the Presidents I flew during the historic decades from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama. For any reader who wants to understand our recent Presidents and their families through the eyes of a tough, experienced, and thoroughly professional Marine Corps chopper pilot, this is a great read.