Lt. Col. (retired) Gene T. Boyer and writer Jackie Boor have recently completed his memoirs. "Inside the President's Helicopter: Reflections of a White House Senior Pilot" chronicles Gene's life, military service and years flying for the White House from 1964 to 1975.

The book is being published by Cable Publishing and will be released in December. To pre-order the book, small orders of 1-9 books will receive a one-time 35% discount and large orders of 10 or more will receive a 50% discount. Shipping is free within the United States and personally autographed bookplates replicating a notepad I used during my command are available. This special offer expires on October 2, 2010, and orders will be shipped on or before December 13, 2010. To order online, go to: www.cablepublishing.com/insidehelo.asp

PROLOGUE

Every helicopter pilot who entered the White House Executive Flight Detachment in the early 1960s heard the same story from their commanding officer:
The day before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as the 35th President of the United States in 1961, he met with outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Oval Office. In the process of briefing the former Massachusetts Senator, Eisenhower directed Kennedy to stand with him behind the massive wood desk. 
“See that button?” Eisenhower said, pointing to a small disk affixed to the edge of the desk. “If you punch it, a helicopter will be here in five minutes.”
Eisenhower promptly pushed the button and, sure enough, not more than five minutes later they heard the muffled flutter of approaching helicopter blades.
Only four years earlier, on July 12, 1957, Eisenhower became the first Chief Executive to travel by helicopter from the White House when he was flown off the south lawn in an emergency evacuation drill called Operation Alert. In the late 1950s, as the Cold War stewed in the “atomic age,” the estimated time for an intercontinental ballistic missile launched by Russia to reach Washington, D.C. was 35 minutes. A helicopter, in this case an Air Force, three-place Bell UH-13-J, was now an essential component of the President’s personal security system.
Deeply devoted to his own family, Eisenhower had another comment for Kennedy.
“If I was a pilot,” he said, “with missiles coming and a family in Virginia, I’d consider saving them instead of flying to the White House. After all, we at least have a bomb shelter.”
The reason for telling us this story was clear, especially for new pilots: “You can think it but don’t do it. The President is more important than your life or anyone else’s.”
The mission established late in 1957 has remained virtually unchanged to this day. The president’s helicopter must be capable of operating day and night, in adverse weather and all climates worldwide, and be prepared for a variety of threats ranging from mechanical malfunctions to nuclear war.
The task of locating the first presidential helicopter and pilot was assigned to Eisenhower’s chief pilot and Air Force aide, Colonel William G. Draper. According to a June 19, 1957, Time magazine article, “The Air Force culled its files for helicopter pilots who had 2,000 to 4,000 hours of flight time without accident…Chosen for the job: steady, blue-eyed Major Joseph E. Barrett, 33, a tough but affable World War II veteran from Rule, Texas.”
Only the best flew for the White House and Barrett, as the President’s first helicopter pilot, set a high bar.
While tremendous technological strides in the design and function of helicopters have been made since 1957, additional contributors to the security, safety, convenience and comfort of the president are when, where and how he is flown. The pilot, the flight crew, the Secret Service, the MP guards, the advance team, maintenance, operations and the support network on the ground must function as a well-oiled machine. A trip, whether five minutes long or an hour, has a strict, intentional protocol with numerous contingency plans in the event of unforeseen developments. As a result, each take-off and landing is aptly called “a mission.”
Emergency landing sites are always pre-designated and protective systems always on standby. If the worst happens, and the president’s helicopter is attacked, our best defense is evasion and relocation to the nearest secure facility, such as Air Force One or a Top Secret bunker.
In 1957, once the Secret Service was convinced helicopters were a safe, more efficient and cost-effective way to travel than a traditional ground motorcade, the White House contacted Sikorsky to upgrade its single-engine CH-34 model for VIP use by the President of the United States.
The Army’s Executive Flight Detachment (EFD) began as the H-34 Detachment in the fall of 1957 at Davison Army Airfield, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The Marines would soon come on board with Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), based at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Quantico, Virginia. That joint mission would be shared for the next 18 and a half years.
WWII veteran Lieutenant Colonel William Howell was the first commander and number one pilot for the Army helicopter unit. Besides emergency evacuation, responsibilities included transporting Eisenhower and other dignitaries to destinations such as Camp David, National Airport and his Gettysburg farm where a strobe light mounted on a barn guided incoming helicopters. Flying by helicopter also made it convenient for Eisenhower to get to any number of area golf courses – a favorite pastime of more presidents to come.
In the summer of 1958, the Army’s H-34 Detachment was renamed the Executive Flight Detachment. By January of 1961, the EFD had flown Eisenhower on more than 100 presidential missions to include two international goodwill trips.
Originally designed for the Navy as a carrier-based helicopter, the H-34 aircraft was replaced by eight “customized” Sikorsky CH-3A fleet models soon after Kennedy took office. Once upgraded, the six-ton CH-3A became a VH-3A – the “V” signifying use by “very important people.” Four were assigned to the Army and four to the Marines.
Also known as the “Sea King,” the CH-3A was nicknamed the “Jolly Green Giant” in Vietnam where it was used for rescue missions and troop resupply. The state-of-the-art helicopter was powered by two 1,500 horsepower T58-GE-83 turbines and could carry a crew of three with up to 16 passengers at a cruising speed of 140 mph over a range of 600 miles.
Perfect for VIP transport and able to land in tight surroundings, the normal bare bones interior had a folding door that separated the cabin from the flight deck. Decorated in the style of the era, the wall-to-cockpit carpeting was a dark variegated aqua, the bench sofas upholstered in harvest gold fabric and the President and First Lady’s individual plush seats were burnt orange. A red cradle and rotary dial telephone was mounted adjacent to the President’s seat. With no less than 15 built-in ashtrays, there was also air conditioning, a closet toilet, sound-proof wall paneling and a fully-stocked wet bar – a creature comfort highly favored by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The VH-3A had a flotation hull and its fuel tanks were self-sealing and crash-resistant. An airstair door was also installed to eliminate the need for a mobile staircase normally used by passengers to board and exit. Each president had his own gold-embossed, personalized glassware, which frequently disappeared as souvenirs discreetly tucked into the pockets and purses of guest passengers.
When flown by an Army pilot with the President on board, the helicopter call-sign was Army One. If the pilot was a Marine, the helicopter would be called Marine One, even it happened to be same aircraft. Three removable Plexiglas plaques – the first reading “Welcome,” the second “Aboard” and the third either, “Army One” or “Marine One” could be inserted in the stairway leading up to the door to further signify which military branch was flying the president. The best historians, journalists, and even some First Family members continue to miss this distinguishing nuance. In truth, as the years pass, more and more people don’t know the Army ever flew for the White House and erroneously credit Marine One for Nixon’s Last Flight the day he resigned on August, 9, 1974, a flight I flew as the President’s chief helicopter pilot.
The classified portion of the EFD established under Eisenhower was supported by five 24-hour helicopters on duty at the Anacostia Naval Station where the Defense Information Systems Agency is located. Whether an Army or Marine unit, we were prepared to immediately evacuate the President and other government officials essential to making national security decisions and take them to one of several secure underground sites in the region.
Until 1966, the Army EFD provided the majority of helicopter support for Eisenhower and Kennedy. By the time Johnson became president in 1963, the unit had grown to about 220 people and had close to 18 helicopters. Two years before the Johnson presidency ended in 1968, he ordered half the unit to the LBJ Ranch in Texas for three major reasons: 1) Johnson was spending four to five months a year at the Texas White House; 2) it was easier to hide from the press and public; and 3) the Army already had a base in the region. Our new mission was to provide helicopter support for everything west of the Mississippi and all overseas trips. The other half of the EFD was rotated into Vietnam to meet the escalating demand for helicopter pilots. I was included in that group and served from 1966-67. HMX-1 stayed in Washington, D.C.
When Nixon was elected in 1968, I was selected as Commander of the Army EFD by then Air Force Colonel Don Hughes and a short time later, designated the senior helicopter pilot at the White House. As Nixon’s chief pilot during his five and half years in office, I personally flew him 451 times, plus 129 additional Code One flights that included President Lyndon Johnson, members of the First Family and multiple heads of state. Between 1969 and 1975, of the more than 10,000 White House missions, the Army flew nearly twice as many as the Marines.
Shortly after my retirement the spring of 1975, the Army Executive Flight Detachment was “disestablished” on June 13, 1976. I believed then and now that the deactivation was a politically-charged move by key White House officials aligned more with the Marines than they were with the demands of the mission. Specifically, those individuals included Nixon’s former Marine Aide Lieutenant Colonel Jack Brennan, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and President Ford’s Military Assistant Marine Master Sergeant Bill Gulley and his Chief of Staff, Dick Cheney. With that line-up, the EFD didn’t stand a chance.
The news knocked me cold.
General Eisenhower, a man I had personally flown in a helicopter, had to be turning in his grave.
Up to that time, Army pilots had flown more White House missions, had been assigned the most challenging trips, had commanded nearly every overseas flight and collectively had accumulated far more flight time than the HMX-1 pilots. In 1976, Army aviators accounted for nearly 90 percent of all military helicopter pilots. To have that pool of skill and experience eliminated from White House service was deplorable then and remains so today. 
From 1963 to 1975, as one of about a dozen exclusively qualified presidential helicopter pilots, I crisscrossed the United States hundreds of times and touched down in every state but Alaska. I flew future President Reagan and sitting Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford, their First Ladies, their families and friends, government officials and heads of state throughout the world. Of the nearly 6,900 hours I logged flying helicopters in Korea, South America, Vietnam and for the White House, close to 4,000 hours were with the EFD. Some 580 missions had a president or world leader on board.
Sample locales for those missions include: Mexico, Vietnam, Ireland, Italy, and England; Hawaii, Wyoming, California, Texas, and Florida; and Chicago, New York, Austin, Philadelphia, and Palm Springs. The most well-known flight was that of Nixon’s departure from office. The most hazardous mission occurred in the Andes of Peru; the most historically significant was near the base of the pyramids in Egypt; the number one white-knuckle trip had Leonid Brezhnev on board; the worst was our only helicopter crash with one fatality in the Caribbean; and the most bizarre involved thwarting a possible plot to assassinate Nixon.
During a career I couldn’t have even begun to imagine as a dirt-poor kid from Akron, Ohio, I also flew with John Wayne as my co-pilot, drank beer with John Steinbeck, babysat Bob Hope’s kids, shuttled Walter Cronkite to the beaches of Normandy, dined with Pearl Bailey, and made champagne runs for Mamie Eisenhower, to name but a few unforgettable adventures.
This book is my best recollection of events and happenings associated with those excursions and moments in history that didn’t always make the headlines. Some stories are profoundly significant, some anecdotal at best, and some are precisely intended to set the record straight regarding the 18 and a half years the Army proudly and competently flew for the White House. 
My story is also an account of the evolution of the helicopter from that of a “death trap contraption” in the 1940s to today’s high tech workhorse and airborne limousine.
Very important to me is having the chance to pay tribute to my fellow soldiers in all branches of the military who serve selflessly and without hesitation to protect the freedom and safety of the United States of America. I am eternally proud to be one of some 40,000 helicopter pilots who flew in Southeast Asia – 2,202 of those men lost their lives. Of those killed in action 1,869 were in the Army and include Captain Dale Dwyer and Chief Warrant Officer Dusty Rhodes who flew with me at the White House during the Johnson years. Few men have ever been more dedicated and courageous.
Finally, it is my heartfelt hope that the reflections of a “no-name helicopter pilot” will help my two terrific adult children, Robin and Curtis, better comprehend what Dad was doing all that time he was away during their childhood. No matter the number of medals and commendations received through the years, nothing means more to me than their understanding, respect and love.


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About Me

Name: LTC Gene T. Boyer (Ret.)
Work: Retired White House Helicopter Pilot
Location: California
 


Latest News

The PHOTOS/VIDEOS section is now up! Newest pictures include a recent trip to Atlanta where LTC Boyer spoke at the ceremony for the refurbishment of the helicopter President Nixon gave as a gift to Egyptian President Sadat in 1974.