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DAN SHEA

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.