(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series on CW4 Michael J. Novosel Sr., who will become the post’s namesake when it is redesignated in April.)
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- After getting a positive response from the Army on joining up as an aviator, the post’s namesake received a “big, fat letter,” (as his wife, Ethel, described it) from the service in the mail early in the summer of 1964.
Michael J. Novosel Sr. was going to be an Army aviator … again, but he wouldn’t be training pilots. He would be reporting to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with the 6th Special Forces Group – a Green Beret unit – as a chief warrant officer, he wrote in his memoir, “Dustoff: The Memoir of an Army Aviator.”
Soon thereafter, though, he received a phone call from an aviation assignments officer saying he had some concerns about Novosel’s aeronautical rating. It had been issued by the Army Air Forces, which ceased to exist once the Air Force stood up. The officer told the 20-plus-year veteran pilot that he needed to get officially rated by one of the Army’s flight schools, and told him to report to Fort Wolters, Texas.
“That was the extent of his instructions,” Novosel wrote. “Unaware of all the ramifications of the call, I didn’t ask for more detailed instructions or an amendment to my orders. I didn’t even bother to get the officer’s name or phone number.
“It was an idiotic situation,” he continued. “I was to go to Fort Wolters and ask to be given an Army aeronautical rating. I did not have documentation for such a request. The only thing I had was orders placing me on active duty at Fort Bragg. What a bucket of worms.”
Things really didn’t improve immediately when he arrived at Fort Wolters. The first thing he noted was the ages of the other flight students. “I felt ill at ease. I was old enough to be the father of most people in the place,” he wrote. “I had to change my attitude; I had to swim with the tide.”
The tide carried Novosel, who was familiar with the post from his WWII aviation training days, to the flight operations building, where he ran into a Department of the Army civilian and updated the man on his situation.
“He asked if I knew how to fly the H-23 helicopter; I told him I had instructed in it for a few months,” he wrote. “He asked me where I had my flight gear; I said I didn’t have any.”
So, clad in casual civilian clothing and loafers – he didn’t have an Army uniform yet – he took a check ride with the civilian.
“The entire episode lasted a mere half hour. That check ride was the basis for the people at Fort Wolters to designate me a bona fide Army aviator,” Novosel wrote. “My old Air Force associates would have been aghast at such footloose procedures. I knew then that flying for the Army was going to be a new experience. I thought of my early days in the Army Air Forces of World War II and realized that I was returning to military flying such as I knew as a young second lieutenant.”
Reporting to Fort Bragg in early September, things got a little more official – including finally getting Army uniforms – and he eventually moved his family to North Carolina and ended up flying with the unit in the Dominican Republic in 1965. And that was where he found out he was going to be going to Vietnam, where combat was heating up.
“When I volunteered for active duty with Army Aviation, I believed that my considerable experience would be put to use training Army aviators,” he wrote. “I never thought I’d be sent to Vietnam as a combatant, certainly not at my age.”
But there he was – he arrived in Vietnam in January 1966.
He was never drafted – he volunteered each time, according to Billy Croslow, Aviation Branch historian. “I think that is why we like to hallmark his service. In a time when many folks were drafted, inducted into the military, he served as a volunteer each time.”
After finding out he’d be assigned to the 283rd Medical Detachment – a Dustoff unit – he spoke to a friend who was also in country.
“I admitted that I didn’t know a thing about the organization and had never heard of Dustoff. I told him I had assisted with the aeromedical evacuation process a few times in the Dominican Republic,” Novosel wrote. His friend told him to be careful – Dustoff missions weren’t the safest in the world – and that he should look for a reassignment or, at the least, see that his will was up to date.
Arriving at the unit, Novosel, as expected, turned out to be the most experienced aviator in the unit, although some of the younger aviators had questions about his age.
He soon alleviated those concerns with his abilities and can-do approach to each difficult mission, and quickly became a leader in the unit. Plus he was very good at something no one else in the unit had much experience in – instrument flight, according to Croslow.
“He had a great deal of experience with instrument flying, and this is something that would prove critical in medical evacuation,” the historian said. “A lot of times there was severe weather that gunships and troop transports wouldn’t necessarily fly in. But MedEvac always had to fly. While people had instrument ratings and all of that, he had a great deal of experience in it – driving a B-29 to deliver ordnance thousands of miles away is an instrument-heavy business.”
With time, he was able to pass a lot of his knowledge on to fellow aviators in the unit, increasing efficiency and safety each time a new convert learned the skill, Croslow added. “He understood that in part his experience, and in part his maturity, allowed him to trust in the system, trust the process. The younger pilots might have been trained on it and might have practiced on it, but they didn’t have the same confidence in it as the confidence of a pilot who had done it for decades. Novosel had that experience and he could pass it on to those crews.”
His first mission, even though he was just a passenger, introduced him to what would be his life for the next year.
“It was not what I expected, yet there was a certain allure to it,” he wrote. “I was not inflicting casualties on the enemy but was offering assistance to our wounded and relieving them of the trauma of battle. I saw death so often that saving a life produced an emotional high. I’d be flushed with the triumph of the occasion. At times it was if I were in a race with death itself. Invariably, if the men we found were still alive, the race was decided in our favor.”
But despite stepping up the unit’s capabilities and confidence with his experience, skills, knowledge and bravery, Dustoff lived up to its reputation of being a dangerous mission by losing numerous flight crews – all well known to Novosel. “The losses of my close friends were hard to accept,” he wrote. “But we could not afford the luxury of taking time to mourn. The wounded were still with us every moment of every day and every night. Their plight was uppermost in our minds. The dead were remembered, but the mission came first.”
After a few years stateside, he found himself back in Vietnam in 1969 with the 82nd Medical Detachment, after turning down the offer of a much safer assignment flying the fixed-wing P-2V.
“I’d heard about the P-2V missions. They were safer than crossing the street in most American cities, but boring as hell,” he wrote. “If I had to return to Vietnam, it might as well be in my old specialty as a Dustoff pilot.”
Part 1: Perfect Choice: Post’s namesake ‘the epitome of Army Aviation’
Part 2: Perfect Choice — Part 2: Post’s namesake ‘the epitome of Army Aviation’
Part 3: Perfect Choice — Part 3: Post’s namesake ‘the epitome of Army Aviation’ - CW4 Michael J. Novosel Sr.