Boom operator returns to the controls 50 years after retirement

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Ramon A. Adelan
  • 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs

It can take many years to master a skill, but that’s not the case for muscle memory. Muscle memory is influenced by everyday activities such as typing, driving, or even brushing your teeth. The day-to-day repetition is eventually performed with little to no effort.

Boom operators, Airmen who perform aerial refueling, can find themselves dialed into the job without hesitation having their intuition and muscle memory kicked in.

Retired Master Sgt. Eugene T. Beal had that very same muscle memory kick in, as he entered a KC-135 Stratotanker at Beale Air Force Base, California, days before his 90th birthday.

Like a child who arrived at a playground, Eugene nearly ran to the boom operator controls while leaving his family behind. With no help, he laid into the operator’s position and began looking out the window, looking at the controls, and dawned an expression of a thousand memories rushing back to mind.

“As a child, I knew that I wanted to fly and that I wanted to be a cowboy,” Eugene said. “Enlisting allowed me to fly, and I loved every damn minute of it.”

Eugene spent most of his career as a boom operator in the KC-97 Stratofreighter and the KC-135. But upon enlisting in March 1952, he was trained and sent to fight in the Korean War as a tail gunner in the B-29 Superfortress.

As the conflict came to an end so did the B-29, which left Eugene without an airframe.

“One day I was called into the office, my chief pointed at a photo on the wall and said ‘That’s what you’re flying now,’” Eugene explained with an expression of confusion. “It was a photo of a KC-97. It was the first time I ever noticed that photo and my response was, ‘What the hell is that?’”

Since his change in specialty to a boom operator, Eugene flew approximately 200 combat missions for Strategic Air Command under the Young Tigers, a combat support unit.

“Being a boom operator had its perks, it took me all around the world to the places I wanted to visit,” Eugene said. “My wife didn’t like it so much because I was gone all the time. If I wasn’t flying or on alert, I was TDY somewhere.”

He continued to describe the frequency of his deployments and reflected on why he retired, though he didn’t want to. He chose to be home with his wife and children.

“Two months after getting back [from deployment], I received orders to go back to the Young Tigers,” Eugene said. “My wife told me ‘No you’re not, go put your papers in [to retire].’”

Eugene continued to share his story and his decision to retire when he suddenly paused and looked over at his son, Robert, with sadness in his eyes.

“I used to walk through the door and my kids didn’t know me,” Eugene said. “They would ask ‘Mom, who’s that man who walked in?’ They didn’t know me. I never got to play ball with the kids because I was never there.”

He pays homage to his late wife, as she was ‘the glue that held the family together’ during his absences. The generations of family that were on the visit exhibited an unbreakable bond and love they have for Eugene and the legacy he’s contributed to his time in service.

“As a child hearing our grandfather’s stories, the family would joke and say “He’s the only person who’s meant to be in the air flying,’” Eugene’s granddaughter said.

The passion for flying and being an Airman radiated from Eugene as soon as he arrived to Beale. Like a library, Eugene was full of exciting, funny, and tragic stories. In all, he was able to share that passion and personal stories with family and Airmen who are currently serving.