Although born in Texas, Eugene eventually felt more at home in California after his family moved to the west coast when he was young. The adventurous lad even thought long and hard about following in his father’s footsteps to join the LAPD. At Los Angeles City College, Eugene studied police science, but he also discovered a joy for things that fly. Enrolling in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, Eugene became a private pilot. He found pure joy thousands of feet in the air, looking down over the hills of southern California. His timing couldn’t have been any better, at least not for the United States, which had just found itself entrenched in the second major world war in the first half of the 20th century. His skills as a pilot were put to the test as Eugene became a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army Air Forces.
Assigned to the Pacific Theater, Eugene proved his mettle time and again in the 394th Bomb Squadron as part of the 13th Air Force. The B-17 Flying Fortress, with a wingspan of over 104 feet, and a range of 2,000 miles, dropped more bombs than any aircraft in the United States during the entire war, and Eugene dropped his fair share of them in 89 combat missions. Earning both an Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross, Eugene wasn’t immune to catastrophes. In fact, he was involved in two separate airplane crashes while serving in the military. He was so well-versed in airline disasters, that he was promoted to the rank of Captain and assigned the arduous role of airplane crash investigator for the remainder of his service.
After leaving the military, Eugene needed a job. No one would have blamed him for trying something a little closer to the ground. His love of flying had not been grounded, however, and he immediately landed a job with Pan American World Airways as a pilot. He flew long haul routes all over the world to exotic places. With the Nazi threat now neutralized, a civilization rebuilding, and America now a superpower, young Eugene seemed to have the world in his hands.
It’s been said that, statistically speaking, air travel is the safest mode of travel known to man. You’d have to fly cross country every single day for a thousand years before you’d be involved in a crash. Our friend, Eugene, however, is no statistic. No more than two years into his life as a hot shot civilian pilot for a major international airline, 3rd Officer Eugene found himself “deadheading” on board a Lockheed L-049 Constellation on Pan Am Flight 121. He and the rest of the plane’s passengers and crew left Karachi on June 18th, 1947 destined for Istanbul. Several hours into the flight, Eugene ended up behind the cockpit as a courtesy to give the captain a break. During his time in command, he experienced an engine malfunction, so he shut one of the plane’s four engines down. The captain, upon returning to the cockpit, determined that the plane would move along just fine with the three remaining engines, so he continued on course to Istanbul rather than turning around to land at a local air strip. That would prove to be a fatal mistake.
At 10:00 pm, Flight 121 hovered somewhere near Baghdad, Iraq when the plane radioed to local airfields their exact position. The engines, it seemed, were overheating, and the L-049 struggled to maintain altitude. An hour and a half later, the second engine caught fire. The captain directed Eugene to prepare the passengers and crew for a possible crash landing as he guided the aircraft towards an air strip in Syria. As screams of panic began to fill the cabin of the distressed airplane, Eugene did his best to calm everyone. He’d been through this situation a time or two, of course. He instructed a stewardess to remain seated as she tried to move around the airplane. This decision would save her life.
Just before 3:30 am on June 19th, somewhere near the Euphrates river in the desert of Syria, one of Flight 121’s engines fell from its harness, leaking fuel and stoking a massive fire on the wing of the plane. Eugene comforted another screaming passenger as the smell of burning fuel infiltrated the cabin and the bright orange flames threw angry shadows across the aisles. The plane crash landed, dragging along hundreds of feet of Syrian desert beneath it. Eugene suffered broken ribs, but seven crew and eight passengers lost their lives. The brave WWII veteran 3rd Officer sprang into action and helped to yank survivors out of the burning wreckage. Only when he realized that the captain and several of his crew were dead, did Eugene grasp that he was the ranking officer. He took command.
Eugene set up a triage station where injured people could receive some type of first aid treatment. He also organized a search party to scan the desert for help. By midday, the Syrian Army, having heard the radio transmission of their position while the plane was in trouble, found the crash site, and brought the survivors, including the heroic Eugene, to a hospital in Deir ez-Zor.
Eugene finally returned to the United States, and the full investigation resulted in commendations for the intrepid pilot and other crew members. The investigative body also admonished Pan Am for failing to replace a faulty engine, which the company had known about before that fateful flight. Eugene, however, stayed on with the airline until yet another incident finally made him call it quits. Enough is enough, after all.
Eugene went back to California and took up a new career: writing television shows. He had a few minor successes, but one particular script would make him a legend. When he finally got a television station to run with a show about a brave young spaceship Captain from Iowa and his quirky science officer from another planet, Star Trek was born. Eugene, who preferred to be called Gene for short, as in Gene Roddenberry, cemented his place as the creator of one of the most prolific science fiction shows of all time. The man who went on nearly a hundred combat missions and kept flying despite numerous brushes with the ultimate tragedy would go on to help revive a genre that was on life support. His creation motivated countless artists and scientists to pursue careers that either continue to inspire us or make our world a better place. In keeping with Mr. Roddenberry’s spirit, wherever we go, let’s go boldly.