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In the Pipeline: Memories of a president's pilot

February 09, 2011|By Chris Epting

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.

"Here's Dwight Eisenhower," he said. "And LBJ, Gerald Ford, Leonid Brezhnev and Walter Cronkite."

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."

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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.

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