"Here's Dwight Eisenhower," he says. "And LBJ, Gerald Ford, Leonid Brezhnev and Walter Cronkite."
Famed Army One helicopter pilot, Retired Master Army Aviator Lt. Col. Gene Boyer, is glancing over the images that defined his life. He stops and recalls, wistfully, what it was like to get to know John Steinbeck during the Vietnam War. He was amazing, Boyer told AOL News during a recent interview. "The great Steinbeck. And just look what he wrote about us helicopter pilots."
This decorated war hero, who started flying MASH missions during the Korean War and was shot down in Vietnam, is also a master storyteller, and he's woven his rich, cinematic, impossibly interesting life into a remarkable new book titled "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. 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.
He flew five U.S. presidents, Gen. William Westmoreland, Henry Kissinger, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, King Hussein, Charles de Gaulle, Robert Kennedy, Nguyen Van Thieu, Leonid Brezhnev, John 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.
That iconic day when Nixon said goodbye, Aug. 9, 1974, it was Boyer who shuttled Nixon away from the White House.
Today, that very helicopter, Army One, is on display at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif. It was found and restored by Boyer, who remembers that last day all too well.
"It was a sad one all around," he told AOL News. "And an extra-heavy flight given all the family luggage aboard. I think more people watched us take off that day than any other. I liked Nixon a great deal. He was very fair with us, and we stayed in contact. I flew him as a civilian later on."
At 81, Boyer still recalls things in razor-sharp detail. A thoughtful, careful speaker, he's also extremely modest and unassuming in documenting his many dramatic missions that, more than once, could have easily resulted in the loss of his or his passengers' lives.
Then again, when you realize that he was arguably history's best, it's no wonder he's still here to talk about his life.
Recalling a death-defying goodwill trip to the mountains of Peru with Pat Nixon after a catastrophic earthquake, Boyer chuckles at the absurdity of the circumstances. "Helicopters are not supposed to fly as high as we did that day. But we made it in and out, and it's still one of the most rewarding missions I ever undertook. In all that devastation, to see what the first lady accomplished was really something. She made a difference up there. She was a remarkably graceful person."
The book, for all of its touch-and-go moments of peril and somber historic reality, is also punctuated with some very funny stories revealing how chaotic things can become within the chief executive's inner circle. Boyer takes the reader inside the most exclusive of bubbles with an honest, no-holds-barred voice of reason that often makes one feel as if they are co-piloting alongside this vaunted flyer.
And he remains a soldier at heart. On a table in his living room sits a small jar full of sand.
"I collected that in 1960 when I visited Normandy Beach. Of all the interesting places I went, that's the one that still stands out.
"When you consider what took place there, when you think about how courageous those soldiers were in that battle, well, I had just had to bring some home with me. Just to remember."
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