RIP the legendary local airman, Lt. Col. Gene Boyer, who passed away last week. I feel very honored to have become friends with him. Here is a story I wrote about this American hero:
If I’ve learned anything in the 11 years my family and I have lived in Huntington Beach, it’s that you never know who you’ll run into in Huntington Beach.
Take, for example, the man I sat with recently. He sat on a couch thumbing through a photo album.
Renowned Army One helicopter pilot and Retired Master Army Aviator Lt. Col. Gene Boyer glanced over the images that defined his life. He stopped and recalled what it was like to get to know the writer John Steinbeck during the Vietnam War.
“He was amazing,” Boyer told me. “The great Steinbeck. And just look what he wrote about us helicopter pilots.”
Clearly, Steinbeck was impressed.
“I wish I could tell you about these pilots,” he wrote. “They make me sick with envy. They ride their vehicles the way a man controls a fine, well-trained quarter horse. They weave along stream beds, rise like swallows to clear trees, they turn and twist and dip like swifts in the evening.”
Boyer, a decorated war hero who started flying MASH missions during the Korean War and was shot down in Vietnam, is also a master storyteller. Lucky for us, he’s woven his rich, cinematic life into a wonderful new book, “Inside the President’s Helicopter: Reflections of a White House Senior Pilot.”
Boyer’s life, in one sense, can be measured in numbers. He had 6,900 hours of helicopter flight time, 368 combat hours, 580 “code one” presidential missions, 451 Richard M. Nixon flights, and 55 flights with at least one foreign head of state on board. Two forced landings. No crashes. He flew in 49 states and 17 countries.
But on another level, his story is more accurately framed by the people and places he encountered. His story starts in Akron, Ohio, where he grew from a Depression-era child into a football star at Ohio University. In the book, we travel with him through the Korean DMZ to the jungles of Venezuela, to the mountains of Peru, from St. Peter’s Square to the pyramids of Egypt, and everywhere in between.
Boyer flew five U.S. presidents, Gen. William Westmoreland, Henry Kissinger, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, King Hussein, Charles de Gaulle, Robert Kennedy, Nguyen Van Thieu, Brezhnev, Steinbeck, Bob Hope and John Wayne.
He was also the first pilot to fly a sitting president and first lady into a combat zone and recruited the first three African American pilots to fly for the White House, one of which was his co-pilot the day Nixon resigned.
That memorable day when Nixon said goodbye, Aug. 9, 1974, it was Boyer who shuttled Nixon away from the White House.
Today, that very helicopter, Army One, is on display at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda. It was found and restored by Boyer, who remembers that last day all too well.
“It was a sad one all around,” he told me. “And an extra-heavy flight given all the family luggage aboard. I think more people watched us take off that day than any other. I liked Nixon a great deal. He was very fair with us, and we stayed in contact. I flew him as a civilian later on.”
At 81, Boyer still recalls things in razor-sharp detail. A thoughtful, careful speaker, he’s also modest and unassuming in documenting his many dramatic missions that, more than once, could have easily resulted in the loss of his or his passengers’ lives.
Then again, when you realize that he was arguably history’s best, it’s no wonder he’s still here to talk about his life.
Recalling a death-defying goodwill trip to the mountains of Peru with Pat Nixon after a catastrophic earthquake, Boyer chuckles at the absurdity of the circumstances.
“Helicopters are not supposed to fly as high as we did that day,” he recalled. “But we made it in and out, and it’s still one of the most rewarding missions I ever undertook. In all that devastation, to see what the first lady accomplished was really something. She made a difference up there. She was a remarkably graceful person.”
The book, for all of its touch-and-go moments of peril and somber historic reality, is also punctuated with funny stories revealing how chaotic things can become within the chief executive’s inner circle. Boyer takes the reader inside the most exclusive of bubbles with an honest, no-holds-barred voice of reason that often makes readers feel as if they are co-piloting alongside this vaunted flyer.
And he remains a soldier at heart. On a table in his living room sits a small jar full of sand.
“I collected that in 1960 when I visited Normandy Beach,” he said. “Of all the interesting places I went, that’s the one that still stands out.
“When you consider what took place there, when you think about how courageous those soldiers were in that battle, well, I just had to bring some home with me. Just to remember.”