History finds room to land
By Eleeza V. Agopian and Cindy Arora, The Orange County Register:
RIVERSIDE – The Army colonel was eating dinner with his family in his Virginia home, dreading the shrill sound of the fire-engine red rotary phone in his bedroom.
“I knew it was coming,” said retired Col. Gene Boyer, then a helicopter pilot.
When it did, his stomach sank.
“As you can see, he’s going out tomorrow,” a White House aide said. “We want you to come in and set up early.”
Moments later, President Nixon appeared on national television. It was Aug. 8, 1974, and after months of scandal, the president announced he would resign the next day.
Boyer tossed and turned all night.
Long after he left the Army and settled in Seal Beach, Boyer often thought of that day – the sadness and the way Nixon looked as he strode off the platform into the crowd. The famous V-for-victory sign.
And he wondered what became of that Sikorsky helicopter.
HEADS OF STATE
Boyer was working as a helicopter pilot for Dutch Shell Oil Co. when the Army called him in 1963. He’d flown for the Army before, and now his name had come up as a candidate for presidential pilot.
He accepted, and shortly afterward President Kennedy was assassinated. When Boyer started, President Lyndon Johnson was in office.
It was an honor and a great responsibility, but Boyer said he tried to put his VIP passengers out of mind.
“You don’t have time to think about mundane things like, ‘Oh, my God, the president is on board,'” Boyer said.
He piloted Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford until 1976. He spent a month in France with former President Eisenhower and Walter Cronkite while they filmed a TV documentary about D-Day.
In the midst of his presidential service, Boyer flew 386 missions in Vietnam. He was shot down on his first one.
When he retired from the military, Boyer worked in marketing in the Middle East and for a short while served as aviation adviser to Jordan’s King Hussein.
“I’ve had a lucky life,” he said.
AUG. 9, 1974
On the day Nixon resigned, Boyer settled the chopper on the White House lawn an hour before the 10 a.m. departure.
Flying into and out of White House air space usually took 15 or 20 minutes.
This day would be different.
Workers assembled a platform for the photographers and a red carpet for the first family to traverse the lawn.
From the cockpit, Boyer could see thousands of White House staffers. Many were struggling with tears.
As the first family boarded, Boyer glimpsed their tight smiles, but they couldn’t mask the sadness in their eyes.
When he was given the all-clear signal, Boyer fired up the engine.
On the other side of the White House fence, thousands more people gathered all the way to the Ellipse, their eyes fixed on the helicopter.
As it lifted from the grass, Boyer felt the copter tip back slightly.
The cabin was full, but human cargo had never weighed the helicopter down before.
Boyer discovered later that nearly all of the Nixons’ personal belongings from the residence were stowed in the rear, instead of being driven to Andrews Air Force Base as was typical.
The crowd waved goodbye as Boyer pulled out of sight of the White House.
Twelve minutes later, Boyer landed at Andrews, and Nixon came up to the cockpit to thank Boyer and his co-pilot for their service.
Nixon noticed the tears in their eyes and scolded them.
“Stop that. Stop those tears,” he said, pointing to the thousands of people waiting on the tarmac to see him off in Air Force One. “I have to walk over there.”
Nixon patted Boyer on the back and walked away.
In Boyer’s Seal Beach cottage, the walls and bookcases are a shrine to the leaders he’s served. Glasses from Air Force One, framed letters from presidents and their families, photos and newspaper clippings paper his walls.
On an end table near the front door is the red phone that once sat in the Fort Belvort bedroom – a direct line from the White House.
His connection to the presidents drove Boyer, now 76, to look for the Sikorsky.
In 2001, he struck gold – or rather, Army green – wrapped in plastic in a Rhode Island naval warehouse.
Boyer flew there to see it for himself. Emotions swelled as he cut through the plastic and stepped inside his helicopter once again.
In October, he persuaded the Air Force to fly it to Riverside’s March Air Field. Then he assembled a crew of volunteers to restore it in a hangar at the air museum. When finished, it will move to the Nixon library in Yorba Linda to be a permanent exhibit.
The Sikorsky is a green Winnebago with wings.
The long, broad, sturdy helicopter toted Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford, and even took President Reagan on a couple of lifts before it was retired. With a wet bar for cocktails and a system that poured hot water, decaf and regular coffee, the helicopter was a more convenient way for presidents to travel, since motorcades inevitably tied up traffic.
A relic of the 1960s, it has wall-to-wall turquoise and green shag carpet. The chairs are upholstered in a textured margarine yellow and olive-green polyester, and come with buttons that read “swivel” and “recline.”
Boyer can still see the Secret Service agents sitting in their designated chairs in the front and back of the helicopter. He can see Nixon sitting in his chair facing the first lady.
PART OF HISTORY
Boyer considers it an honor to have served the presidents. Though he was disappointed in Nixon as the truth about the Watergate cover-up was revealed, he still admired the president for his diplomatic achievements in China and for pulling troops out of Vietnam.
Finding the helicopter and restoring it is partly Boyer’s tribute to Nixon, but also to the other presidents who flew in it and to the 5,000 helicopter pilots and crew who died in the Vietnam War.
“You have to recognize it’s part of history,” Boyer said.
As visitors to the March Field Air Museum step up to the helicopter, some can’t help but turn around, stretch their arms and flash the victory signs.
“When you open this up to the public,” he said, “you’re going to get thousands of people who are going to want to take that picture.