John O’Sullivan is one of two full-time helicopter pilots who fly for the Charlotte County, Fla. Sheriff’s Office. He learned to fly after serving a tour in Vietnam in 1965 with the 1st Infantry Division.
“I was in an artillery battalion attached to the 1st Infantry that went over to Vietnam with the first buildup in September 1965,” the 66-year-old deputy said. “I was to be a counter radar maintenance man.
“Most of the time I was running a machine gun squad supporting the artillery,” O’Sullivan explained. “We’d go out with the 105 mm Howitzers when they set up in the jungle and put a protective perimeter around them.
“During the 13 months I was over there, I probably went out on 15 or 20 of these missions,” he said. “The second or third mission I went out on, we were ambushed by the Viet Cong.
“They hit us about 4 or 5 p.m. as we were coming back down a single-track road. The VC blew the bridge behind us, so there was no going back. And we were low on water and food.
“There were possibly 40 or 50 of them. We were outgunned, so we called in the gunships and that was the end of the VC,” he said. “Before they quit, two soldiers in the lead jeep were killed when the vehicle blew up and a number of other soldiers in our unit were injured.
“I was wounded in the fight. I had shrapnel wounds, plus one of my eyes was injured,” O’Sullivan said. “I was first treated at a Special Forces base camp, then I was flown to a MASH hospital behind the lines and finally to the 93rd Evac Hospital near Saigon. I spent a month recuperating from my injures before I was sent back to my unit.”
After he completed his three years of service in the regular Army, O’Sullivan took the G.I. Bill and went to civilian helicopter school, where he first got his wings.
“Then one day I saw this ad in a magazine that the Army was looking for helicopter pilots. So I signed up with the National Guard in Philadelphia,” he said.
That was 1977. O’Sullivan spent 30 years in the guard, much of the time flying Huey helicopters like the ones used locally.
When he and his wife moved to Charlotte County, Fla. in 1997, he got to fly for the Sheriff’s Office as a part-time ‘copter pilot. The CCSO has two rebuilt Hueys from Vietnam and two smaller OH-58 scout ‘copters that have been rebuilt and are about the same age.
O’Sullivan can fly any of the four helicopters. They’re used for a variety of missions, from patrols, narcotics busts, vehicle pursuits and missing person searches to firefighting. The Hueys can drop a 325-gallon bucket of water on a wildfire. Because of maintenance costs and the price of fuel, the choppers take to the air sparingly.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, May 20, 2010 and is republished with permission.
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