LTC Gene Tunney Boyer, Renowned Pilot for the White House, Dies at 87
With the deepest regret, I share with you the passing of Army LTC Gene Boyer at the age of 87. As many of you know, I had the unique privilege (and adventure) of working with Gene on his life story, “INSIDE THE PRESIDENT’S HELICOPTER: Reflections of a White House Senior Pilot,” Cable Publishing, 2010. Often asked what motivated him to tell his story he names three reasons: preserve the history of the Army’s aviation service to the White House (1959-76); pay tribute to all fellow soldiers who serve our country and, in particular, the 46,681 helicopter pilots with whom he flew in Vietnam of which 2,202 perished; and to convey to his children what had kept him so busy during their childhood.
You’ve all likely seen one of his most famous flights. The day President Nixon resigned in 1974, Gene was the commanding pilot that flew him from the White House in Army One. His co-pilot was the first African American helicopter pilot to fly for the White House and lifelong friend, CW4 Carl Burhanan. Highly decorated for his military service, Gene logged nearly 368 hours of combat flight time and nearly 650 hours with a US president or world leader on board. He flew president’s Johnson, Nixon and Ford on missions that took him to 17 foreign countries and every state but Alaska. His stories include those plucked from the most prominent world headlines to those that remained behind the scenes – all told with generous insight, political savvy and exceptional wit.
From flying former President Dwight Eisenhower and Walter Cronkite over the beaches of Normandy for the 20th anniversary of D-Day to giving John Wayne a mini-flight instruction course; from flying Leonid Brezhnev through an ice storm to herding a deer off the runway for Air Force One; from thwarting a possible plot to assassinate President Nixon to bunking with John Steinbeck in Vietnam. Steinbeck later wrote of that time, “I wish I could tell you about these pilots. They make me sick with envy. They ride their vehicles the way a man controls a fine, well-trained horse. They weave along stream beds, rise like swallows to clear the trees, they turn and twist and dip like swifts in the evening…”
For me, I will always remember how much Gene loved Klondike bars and red wine; and how much he enjoyed walking his “chick-magnate” dog Amber and enthralling complete strangers with any number of tales. He also delighted in a good and noble challenge like the work he did to recover and restore the Last Flight helicopter now on display at the Nixon Library or the work he did with the New York Times exposing the costly and ill-fated Department of Defense contract for a new and unnecessary White House helicopter fleet in 2009. He also eagerly added his voice as an advocate for veterans’ rights. But above all, he was devoted to his family and they to him.
LTC Gene Boyer leaves a remarkable legacy steeped in equal parts personal gumption, old-fashioned principles and unmitigated patriotism. May he forever fly high and proud in the sweeping vastness of American history.