In August, 1974, I was busy watching over an active toddler and pregnant with our second child. The preceding twelve years had been chaotic – for me personally and for our country. Frustrated, angry, confused and scared, I was no different than anyone else. I remember sitting on the couch, dry-mouthed, watching the first family troop out to a helicopter on the White House lawn. The President’s wife and daughters were stoic, but I knew they’d been crying and would cry again. Nixon paused in the doorway of Army One and flung his arms into the air in his signature “victory” gesture, but his over-shiny eyes betrayed him. I wanted to curse at him, but only a sob came out. What the heck was going on in the world?
LTC Gene Boyer was also a witness to this event – not from the perspective of a prying-eye television set, but from the cockpit of the helicopter waiting for the Nixons and their entourage to board. His description of the sad tableaux inside the craft as it carried the first family to Andrews AFB where Air Force One waited is both sensitive and revealing—as is the rest of Colonel Boyer’s book. This intriguing memoir is filled with many familiar images in American History told from the perspective of a publicly invisible but crucial participant – the President’s helicopter pilot.
Gene Boyer was already an accomplished pilot with thousands of hours in the air, when he was assigned to the Army’s Executive Flight Detachment in October 1963. He was no stranger to carrying VIPs at that point, but this job was special – it was to ferry the President and his guests to official and unofficial events. Boyer was excited about the new position and honored by the opportunity. However, he had not yet arrived at his new duty station when John Kennedy was assassinated. He only worked a short time when new President Lyndon Johnson split the group – sending half to Austin and the other half to Vietnam. Boyer went to Nam.
Helicopters were useful in Korea, but in Vietnam, they became a ubiquitous tool of combat – used to insert and extract troops, rescue the trapped and provide medical assistance to the wounded. Boyer’s time in-country built his love for rotary aircraft and enhanced his already impressive abilities. Those skills were to come in handy when he returned from Southeast Asia to fly Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford.
The sheer breadth of Boyer’s experiences makes this a terrific read. There was the time that he flew Dwight Eisenhower and Walter Cronkite over Omaha Beach while filming a documentary for the Twentieth Anniversary of D-day. There was the struggle to dump Agent Orange out of the back of a Chinook in Vietnam, which turned out to have dire consequences for the health of American troops on the ground and for the pilots charged with dispersing the poison, as well. There’s the story about flying a mile ahead of a motorcade carrying LBJ and Mexican President Diaz Ortez. With a secret service agent strapped to one side of the helicopter and his Mexican counterpart on the other side, they saw a sniper on top of a building overlooking the route. They radioed ahead and the man was arrested. The presidents had no sooner arrived at their destination in Juarez than security had to subdue and arrest a young woman with a pistol.
There’s also many neat things that only an insider would know--like the time LBJ loaned a helicopter with pilot to ailing ex-President Eisenhower. When then Major Boyer arrived, Ike asked him to take a covey of pretty girls for a ride…and when he returned, before landing, to hover near his hospital window so that he could take their picture. Then there’s the story about taking off from St. Peter’s square with Nixon and a load of presents from the Pope—and the one about a harrowing trip to Peru with Pat Nixon after a catastrophic earthquake.
However, in the end, this book spoke to me more than other accounts of the Watergate travesty. Boyer doesn’t see the political side of Nixon—or the desperate or criminal one. He describes a human being under incredible pressure—a man who was unfailingly polite and appreciative of the service Boyer provided. Along with Colonel Boyer, I had to imagine what the world would have remembered of Nixon had Watergate not happened…certainly history would have shown a productive and successful presidency. I was struck again by the tragedy of it all.
This is a book that made me want to meet the author – to ask him about Julie and Tricia, to talk about the wild party at his home after the Frost/Nixon interviews, to chat about choppers and bloopers – and a host of cultural happenings that we both lived through…he on the edge of reality, me from afar peering through my TV.
Reviewed by: Joyce Faulkner (2011)
How does a dirt-poor kid from Ohio become the senior helicopter pilot for the White House? "One adventure at a time," says retired U.S. Army LTC Gene T. Boyer. As the pilot who flew President Nixon away from the White House in Army One the day he resigned, Colonel Boyer weaves a fast-paced and revealing account of his extraordinary aviation career through the keen eyes of a Skywitness to History.