Recalling Late Oxford Pilot Who Flew U.S. Presidents

Robert "Bobby" Burnett was in the cockpit to transport Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

He could someday go down in local lore as one of the most successful Southwest Connecticut residents in history - a lifelong patriot who served his country in positions of which others can only dream.

So why is it so few people today have heard of the late retired Maj. Robert Burnett, a longtime Oxford man who held a storied career in the Marine Corps that included two tremendously high-profile assignments as a helicopter pilot of Chopper One for two U.S. presidents?

The relative obscurity of Burnett - a former Oxford resident who died suddenly on Nov. 5 at age 61 - may be attributed to the very qualities that made him a great American servant who seemingly earned the respect of just about everyone who knew him, including former President Ronald Reagan: Burnett was a humble gentleman of southern upbringing who considered his talents a calling for which he need not brag.

There were, for sure, many aspects of the job Burnett simply could not discuss, not even with his family. But even if he could, Burnett probably wouldn’t because that just wasn’t his way, says his teenage daughter, Shelby Burnett of Oxford.

“He worked behind the scenes a lot of the time and wasn’t always appreciated as much as he should have been, but he didn’t mind,” Shelby recalled. “He was a proud military man and enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers. And I don’t know what greater sacrifice you make for your nation than fighting for it.”

Although Burnett, like so many others who serve their country, was not always appreciated the way he probably should have been,  he made enough of an impression on former President Reagan to receive a personalized letter of thanks from the commander in chief. The letter, which is attached this article in its entirety, reads:

“Dear Bobby:  Anyone who is truly devoted to public service is unlikely to think of himself or herself as indispensable, but, if that word applies to anyone I’ve encountered these past eight years, it’s the staff of the White House Military Office and support units. The range of duties you perform and the all-hours demands on our skills and experience are truly remarkable. Whatever the job and the time frame, you’re always ready and you’ve always come through.”

The letter goes on to state that Burnett “give(s) witness to a proud heritage, and you add to it immeasurably.”

“I never leave home without you, and the communications facilities you maintain and continually upgrade have given me virtually instant access to any post or person I must meet throughout the globe,” Reagan states in the letter. “You supply a margin of confidence that makes the whole Free World breathe easier.”

It ends, “Thank you for all you’ve done. You make your countrymen, and this countryman of yours, very, very proud indeed. God Bless you, and God Bless America. Sincerely – Ronald Reagan”

The letter is one of many pieces of priceless memorabilia that Shelby Burnett has picked up from the home her father was staying in near Quantico, Va., when he died of an apparent heart attack while attending a funeral service for a friend. Burnett left behind so much, including two adult sons, two step sons, his daughter and a lifetime of memories of an uncanny patriotic life.

Shelby Burnett is proud of her father, who served in the Marine Corps for 20 years before retiring in 1997. He moved to Connecticut with his former wife and Shelby when he took a job at Sikorsky in Stratford where he was a test pilot of military aircraft for 12 years.  (See his obituary attached, along with photos of numerous pieces of memorabilia he left behind.)

And while she is thankful for his accomplishments, Shelby is more prone to saying he was simply a great father.

“He didn’t get all the experiences he would have wanted as a kid, so he made sure that I got all of the experiences I could,” said Shelby, who graduated from last year and is now attending college in Long Island. She is undecided on a future career.

She says her father was a typical “soccer dad,” who went to all of the games and cheered on the sidelines while joking with children and parents in between plays. He would attend her swim meets and take down swim times and statistics for competitors.

He would do it all with a smile on his face, while calling ladies “ma'am” and men “sir.”

“He was a consummate southern gentleman,” said longtime family friend Madalene Taggart. “He was a wonderful man who was a very proud father.”

She believes he is still proud of his daughter, who was a volunteer in the Oxford Junior Ambulance Corps before going back to college. And Shelby wants to carry his torch through another generation.

“He makes me very proud,” Shelby said. “Looking at his memorabilia makes me feel like I have to do something more, like I need to contribute to something more. I hate to sound cliché, but I feel like I need to find a way to contribute to something bigger than myself.” 

Just like her father.

Sam Mihailoff January 28, 2012 at 11:47 AM
Thank-you for your service sir. My thoughts are with your family.
MOM January 28, 2012 at 01:45 PM
Thank you for sharing the story of your dad, Shelby. God bless him, you and your family!
Madalene Taggart January 28, 2012 at 02:33 PM
Thank you Paul, you wrote a beautiful article.
Roy Tidmarsh January 28, 2012 at 03:02 PM
Thanks for a great article. We need to see more special interest stories and bios in the Patch.
Paul Singley January 28, 2012 at 03:54 PM
Thanks. Please feel free to send along story ideas, and we'd love to write 'em.
Don A January 28, 2012 at 07:54 PM
I worked with Bobby at Sikorsky. He was a true professional, a man who always had a positive outlook and a great sense of humor. Whenever I needed insight or advice about how to design electronic systems that would meet the pilots' needs, Bobby was always willing to spend the time to help. Don Antilla
Donna Cyr January 29, 2012 at 12:07 AM
Bob Burnett was a compassionate, generous and giving gentleman. He made soccer games as interesting on the field as on the sidelines. We laughed, we cheered and he always glowed with pride for his daughter. He would call me "mam", I would fight him on it and he told me "it was a sign of respect and I had earned that respect".I told him it made me feel old, he just laughed. I never won that battle. Bob was bigger than life, so humble and such a great man. It was an honor to know him and my family is richer for having him in our lives. He will be hugely missed.
Tara Owens Zibluk January 29, 2012 at 02:53 AM
We are proud to call this very honorable man our friend. We did not know the extent of his accomplishments till now due to his quiet integrity. He exemplified the Marine Corp Oath of Semper Fidelis- always faithful. He always put his Country, his family and his friends first before himself with his unbending code of honor. He is one of the areas most accomplished man. He has left his legacy, his children. Shelby at a very young age has shown she has inherited his traits. We will miss this great man! Tara, Gary, Cali and Hanna Zibluk
Jerry Schwab January 30, 2012 at 09:32 PM
Nicely written Paul.
Jon DeFelice February 03, 2012 at 01:12 AM
I had the good fortune of knowing Bob when he was flying at HMX-1. I was the Chief Engineer for the Helicopters, and we spent many hours discussing issues, problems,and just discussing everyone and everything. He was always very active in always making things better. I have never met a more caring and devoted individual. He will be missed. Jon DeFelice
Anna Van Wyck February 05, 2012 at 03:46 AM
Bobby Burnett was not only our neighbor, but a dear friend. The last time we saw him, he was shoveling his driveway. He always kept his property in impeccable condition. He was a true Southern gentleman, always referring to our daughters as "Miss." We will always remember his kindness toward our family, as well as his service to our country. Much love to the Burnett family. The Van Wyck's
Lewis Kish February 18, 2012 at 12:57 AM
Bobby Burnett was a special friend to all of us at Sikorsky Aircraft. Bobby a Dallas cowboy fan and I a new york giants fan would often bet a coke on the rocks to the winner.Having known Bobby is the biggest win of all. Fairwell dear friend,I will never forget you. Lew Kish


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