For decades, Ed Burns, a retired colonel with the United States Air Force, flew around the globe completing covert operations and other perilous assignments, but never once did he sweat the danger involved—or cease to enjoy the moment.
For 27 years the Savannah, Georgia native kept his mind steady on the task at hand—his skillful training the reason for perpetual focus.
“The training was such that when you did get in a situation you knew what to do and you were concentrating on the emergency…and you just didn’t think about anything else,” Burns said.
He now looks back with a smile at the simple philosophy he’s always lived by—have fun. And when that feeling no longer fueled him during his military career days, Burns knew what to do.
“I kind of made career decision (that) rather than trying to make rank…whatever I do, wherever I go I want to go with the goal of having fun. And I did, my whole career,” he said. “People for years asked me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ I said, ‘Well, when I stop having fun.’”
He said he received the simple wisdom from a military officer.
“One day I asked him, ‘When do you know it’s time?’” Burns said. “And he said, ‘You’re going to wake up one morning, go in and shave, and you’re going to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘It’s just not fun anymore.’”
Last month the decorated veteran celebrated his second retirement. Dorchester County Council even recognized Burns with a resolution Chairman Jay Byars read during the Sept. 17 meeting. The document honored him for both his county and military service.
For 18 years Burns worked in the Dorchester County Veterans Affairs Office—first as an assistant director and then as the head administrator. But his first career retirement occurred in 1995, the same year Burns said he moved to Summerville to be closer to family—his ex-father-in-law Paul Canant the director of operations and base commander in Charleston at the time.
All his life, Burns said he aspired to reach the rank of colonel, just like Canant, who served as a male role model for him after Burns’ parents died. But Burns was the first-ever member of his family to follow the patriotic path. Ironically, he said he chose the Air Force after earning his undergraduate degree from an Army school in North Georgia. It was his desire to soar the skies with speed that prompted the switch in branches, Burns said. He was 21 at the time and just “one step ahead of the draft board.”
“I always wanted to fly and all the instructors at school said, ‘O, you have to sign contracts,’ and I said, ‘No, I want to fly,’” Burns said. “And they said, ‘Well, we have things that fly’; I said, ‘Yea, well I want to get out of the battle zone a little faster than a Huey can take me.’”
And Burns’ wish certainly came true. During his time with the Air Force, he flew a variety of aircraft including the AC-130 gunship—one of his favorites because of the unique light show it created during nighttime combat. He said a red tracer illuminated every fifth bullet that was shot from the plane, which included two 20mm Gatling guns.
“You just see a line of red bullets coming out; it was pretty,” Burns said.
Other planes at his disposal ranged from different versions of the C-150, C-130, C-140 and also KC-10, an aerial refueling tanker.
Right out of college Burns went into officer training school in San Antonio, Texas before heading to Lubbock, Texas for pilot training. His initial Air Force assignment was with the Hurricane Hunters in Puerto Rico before moving to Biloxi, Mississippi.
Five years later Burns shipped out to a post with a gunship in Thailand for a year before returning to the states to work with the 89th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. The wing provides air missions, logistics, aerial port and communications for the president, vice president, combat commanders and other top leaders. Burns came on board during President Jimmy Carter’s leadership.
He likened one of his instructors at that time to the character “Danny” in the classic Air Force One movie starring Harrison Ford.
“The real Danny was one of my instructors in (Lockheed) JetStars; we were young captains together,” Burns said. “And I did that (position) until President Carter said, ‘Get rid of my limousines,’ and he meant airplanes, too, so we went over to Germany for three years and flew that mission over there.’”
Burns said multiple times he flew former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. He also recounted the secret mission he was assigned during the Iranian hostage crisis during the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. For more than a year the American embassy in Iran had been overtaken and workers inside held hostage.
But when a negotiation to release the hostages failed between the U.S. and Iran, Burns said the President ordered him to pick up his mother Lillian Carter, in Cairo, Egypt at the time.
“As I’m starting engines in Athens (Greece), we hear on the radio the President’s speech saying it had failed,” Burns said. “Well, as we’re standing there at the bottom of the steps of this airplane, these two, big limousines come up.”
And out walked Lillian Carter with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and wife, eager to introduce her “friends” to Burns, in a hurry to complete his mission.
“I...said, ‘I gotta get going; we got a block time to meet,’” Burns said. “And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because the President has grounded all airplanes until you get off.’ And I said, ‘O, well, then go ahead and keep talking.’”
Burns said he most remembered Lillian Carter by her strong, Southern accent—the two sharing in their Georgian roots during the plane ride.
After working for a season at Pope Army Airfield in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Burns said he wound up working four years for the Air Force’s International Affairs Division at the Pentagon. He specifically boasted the title of “European Desk Officer”—his division’s coverage area and duties so vast he said people often referred to it as “the cocktail circuit.” In addition to handling American’s European embassies, Burns’ office simultaneously served as the release office for Air Force information.
“On a bi-lateral basis, the nations of Europe, whenever they wanted Air Force information, I was the guy that released it to them,” Burns said. “In addition to that, a lot and a lot of embassy parties.”
The flashy functions often brought together all walks of life, from Hollywood starlets to a Soviet Union KGB colonel, Burns remembered.
After his Pentagon stint, Burns returned to Pope as a squadron commander for two years before traveling to Panama to serve as the director of operations, or “mac DO” during Operation Just Cause. The U.S. invaded the country to capture military leader Manuel Noriega.
“So we lived through that little action,” Burns said with wide eyes.
After Panama Burns returned to the States and filled a deputy base commander role at McGuire Air Force Base, but no longer engaged in flying.
“Of course I was missing that,” he said.
Luckily, his opportunities for air travel resurfaced, just before retirement, when he was promoted to MacGuire’s assistant director of Air Force operations. Burn said his “sphere of influence” spanned from North Dakota all the way around the world to Pakistan, with much of his flying in Africa.
“My boss, the DO (director of operations), didn’t like to go on trips a lot...so he did the reports, and I did all the flying all over the world to report to the boss and really check on the readiness of the air crews,” Burns said.
After retirement, Burns moved to town and taught simulators at Charleston Air Force Base for about a year then spent time completing volunteer work—until he got a call from a county friend in the VA office to join them. The job had him mostly filing military disability claims and cutting up and sharing stories with local vets, before Burns opted to retire a second time.
“We had fun harassing each other—the different services,” he said.
Burns’ total career time, including military service and work with the county, spanned 45 years. He said he never had any interest to do commercial flying like some of his retired Air Force friends.
But Burns is still adjusting to post-retirement life and deciding how he’ll spend his latter years, though he said he’ll likely visit family, including five grandchildren who live locally.
And the memories of Burns' flying days will forever remain close, and within reach. That’s because his Ashborough home is filled with numerous international trinkets he’s acquired from his travels, along with mini replicas of the 89th Airlift Wing and Lockheed JetStar.