Dan Shea graduated from Santa Barbara High in
1965. “I was 1A to get drafted,” he remembers.
“So I enlisted.” Vietnam was on and the army needed
helicopter pilots. They made him one. And since
Vietnam, his life has been inextricably partnered
with one machine. That machine is the Bell UH-1
helicopter -- the Huey.
What the horse was to the cavalry of past wars,
the helicopter was to Vietnam. And the Huey was
Dan Shea’s war horse.
“We were twenty one and bullet proof then,”
he recalls. But not everyone was bullet proof.
Nearly one out of every four pilots in his company
didn’t come home.
His unit was assigned to support the “gung-ho”
101st Airborne Division. He flew missions every
day - to places called Ashau Valley, the Ho Chi
Minh Trail, and Hamburger Hill. And when Nixon
said American troops weren’t in Laos, Dan Shea
was very much in Laos.
“We would go across the border to do recons,
insert special forces or marines. Five to ten
man teams, to patrol, to gather intelligence,
not to make contact.”
But sometimes such troops did make contact with
the enemy, and it was his job to get them out,
no matter where they were.
“These guys were sometimes in triple canopy
jungle, trees and brush three stories high,” he
begins, describing the rescues. “We would drop
a rope, 100-300 feet long with a little canvas
saddle at the end of it, and you’d have to pull
them out vertically, four at a time, two on each
side. And they would just hang there, two hundred
feet below the ship, until you got back to friendly
territory. It could get pretty hairy.”
Dan Shea’s relationship with the Huey didn’t
end with the war. After discharge, he married
a Santa Barbara girl, and moved to Alaska. They
were building the trans-Alaska pipeline then and
there was plenty of work for helicopter pilots.
Most of the oil camps were in pretty remote
places and Dan’s job kept him away from home a
lot. Once, after leaving his base camp near Prudhoe
Bay, he found himself caught in a storm. “So,
I landed,” he says, “in the middle of nowhere,
out on the ice.” And he waited to be rescued himself.
He began to get hypothermic and dehydrated and
had thoughts of not making it.
“You can eat snow,” he informed me. “But that
just makes you colder. And all we had to melt
the ice was canned sterno.” That’s were he learned
an interesting lesson. “Sterno doesn’t burn well
at 30 below.”
The oil company sent a rescue plane the next
day. That pilot made “the ultimate short field
landing on a frozen lake” and got him out. “I
was lucky,” he says.
Married with a new son, the cold, dark Alaskan
days, and long days away from home finally got
to him. He opted to return to California. Once
home, he landed a job with the sheriff’s department.
For more than twenty years now, he’s been a Ventura
County sheriff’s helicopter pilot. He flies a
much overhauled government surplus machine --
still a Huey.
Dan Shea is a ruggedly handsome man who exhibits
no bravado in describing his current job of saving
lives and catching bad guys. “We do search and
rescue. We fight fires. We do law enforcement,
“ he says simply.
When a surfer gets in trouble off shore, Dan
Shea flies. When a fisherman gets swept off the
rocks, he flies. A climber falls, he’s in the
air. He’s the pilot. He has a crew chief and an
EMT (emergency medical technician) aboard. One
operates the hoist and guides the pilot. The other
goes down on the hoist as the rescuer.
Dan and his Huey also fight fires. “We can drop
340 gallons of water at a time. But for 340 gallons
to make a difference, sometimes you have to get
right down into it.”
Catching bad guys is also part of the job. “Once
a helicopter gets on the scene and spots a suspect,
90% of the time they’re caught,” he says. His
job is to keep an eye on the suspect and keep
the cops on the ground out of hazardous situations.
Working out of Camarillo Airport, he has the
mountains on one side of him, the ocean on the
other, and the sky above. He’s a rock steady kind
of guy, married to the same woman for thirty years,
and flying Hueys forever.