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“Dustoff.” In 1963 that was the call sign for helicopter pilots who pioneered emergency medical evacuations during the Vietnam War. About 3,000 pilots and crewmen flew unarmed air ambulances, often into heavy fire, to medevac more than 100,000 severely wounded men, and 33 percent became casualties themselves.

Michael “Mike” J. Novosel, a native of Etna, Pennsylvania, took a circuitous route to the cockpit of a UH-1H Huey medevac copter. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps (a predecessor to the U.S. Air Force) in February 1941 to become a pilot but was a quarter-inch shy of the 5-foot, 4-inch requirement for the aviation cadet program and found himself in a pay clerk’s job. 

In his 1999 Dustoff: The Memoir of an Army Aviator, Novosel recounted his effort to beat the height requirement. He had read that people are tallest in the morning before they stand and the body compresses, so on the day of the measurement Novosel’s buddies transported him to the medical facility on a makeshift stretcher. He still came up short, but a compassionate medical officer “stretched” his height on paper.

After earning his wings in December 1942, Novosel became a B-24 pilot training aerial gunners in World War II. He placed a pillow behind him in the pilot seat so his feet could reach the rudder pedals. He later flew B-29s on four combat missions in the Pacific. During the Japanese surrender ceremony on Sept. 2, 1945, he was one of 500 pilots to fly in formation over Tokyo Bay.

Novosel stayed on active duty when the U.S. Air Force was established in 1947 but switched to the Air Force Reserve in 1949. Back on active duty during the Korean War, he was assigned to the Air Command and Staff School.

When the Vietnam War began, Novosel wanted a combat assignment, but the Air Force deemed the 41-year-old lieutenant colonel too old. However, he found an opportunity with an Army program that trained experienced pilots from the other services. By 1964 he was flying helicopters as an Army warrant officer and in January 1966 was sent to Vietnam for the first of two tours as a dustoff pilot. His second tour began in March 1969. He flew a total of 2,543 missions transporting more than 5,500 medical evacuees.

On Oct. 2, 1969, a large enemy force pinned down South Vietnamese soldiers in Kien Tuong province in the Mekong Delta. The South Vietnamese suffered heavy casualties, and medevacs were called in. Novosel, in the 82nd Medical Detachment, flew his Huey in low-level circuits over the battlefield to locate casualties. Six times intense enemy fire forced him out of the area, but not for long. He performed 15 extractions, saving 29 soldiers. On one flight, Novosel hovered his helicopter backward into enemy fire to reach a wounded fighter and held his position while the man was pulled aboard. Novosel was wounded during the rescue.

Two months later, a new pilot arriving in Vietnam requested assignment to the 82nd Medical Detachment. He was Warrant Officer Michael J. Novosel Jr. A month before the father was to return home, the son’s helicopter came under fire, and Novosel Jr. made an emergency landing. Novosel Sr., with wounded aboard his helicopter, dropped down to pick up his son and the grounded dustoff crew. One week later, Novosel Sr. and his helicopter were grounded. He recognized the pilot coming to the rescue him—it was his son. “I’ll never hear the last of this,” Novosel recalled saying.

On June 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Novosel for his actions on Oct. 2, 1969. Novosel also received three Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars and 60 Air Medals. When he retired in 1985, Novosel was the last World War II pilot still on active duty. He died April 2, 2006, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Doug Sterner, an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, is curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor, the largest database of U.S. military valor awards.