Retired Lt. Colonel John Nelson commanded many helicopter squadrons during his 25 years of service in the U.S. Air Force as a combat search and rescue pilot.

The responsibilities were many and weighty for the Sandy Run resident who saw his military leadership role as one of service to his country and to his fellowman.

“One thing I loved about the Air Force was, particularly in the rescue business, you got to lead from the point end of the spear,” the 64-year-old Nelson said. “You do the same thing you expect your people to do and you do it with them.”

“If you do that and you do it well, they will walk over for broken glass for you,” he said. “That is what leadership is all about: doing what your people do.”

Nelson’s military career embodied this servant leadership mindset that blossomed as he grew into young adulthood.

USC to Air Force

Born in Columbia in March 1958 at the old Columbia hospital on Harden Street the same day as his future wife, Nelson grew up in the Sandy Run community of Calhoun County. He attended Bethlehem Elementary School during the time of integration and was one of three white kids in the school during his eighth-grade year.

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He then attended the former John Ford High School in Calhoun County and ended up switching to Swansea High School, where he would graduate in 1976.

A son of a World War II U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Nelson said his father, who worked as a foreman at The State newspaper in Columbia, was a corporal in the Corps who personally witnessed much of the carnage of war during his time of service. 

“My father really did not encourage me to join the military,” Nelson said. “I kind of plowed my own row to do that.”

Nelson entered the University of South Carolina in Columbia and joined the ROTC program with the intention to pursue a civil engineering degree. He soon realized it was not for him after he failed chemistry and calculus.

Being on probation and in danger of failing out of school, he changed his major and ended up graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history and economics and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma.

“I guess it was a calling more than anything else,” Nelson said, when asked why he joined ROTC. “It was a calling of service.”

A part of this calling was Nelson’s desire to take flight.

“I wanted to be a pilot,” Nelson said. “I thought I was going to fly a fixed wing.”

Nelson started flying at Owens Field in downtown Columbia in 1978, learning to fly as part of the Air Force ROTC’s flight instruction program.

The change of major helped Nelson flourish, becoming a commandant of the cadet corps at USC and finishing with a grade-point average of over 3.

He served as the flight commander of the ROTC and led cadets in drill during his sophomore year. He also had a job with the South Carolina Tax Commission and did other odd jobs during this time in college.

During his sophomore year at USC at the age of 20, Nelson attended basic training to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware during the summer. He drilled and conducted other exercises. It was there that he was partnered with a female cadet to conduct a mental acumen test.

As a self-described “not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” Nelson said he was fortunate to have her as a partner because she was “really brainy and figured it out.”

“It helped me out in the rest of life,” Nelson said. “Hey, everybody has deficiencies and what successful people do is recognize folks that can complement and help you overcome those deficiencies.”

At Dover, Nelson was introduced to C5 cargo planes and other aircraft but flying in the planes did not attract him.

“I was trying to get comfortable with this and like this,” he said, noting that he met some crew members and did not find their duties attractive. “I was like, you know, now I am not sure I want to fly these eight-hour carryover legs and cargo jets. I really wanted to be in a fighter jet. I still wanted to fly but I was not feeling it.”

The next summer was a third lieutenant two-week program for cadets at Maryland’s Andrews Air Force Base. There his first flight was with Vice President Walter Mondale to Boston.

He recalled stopping at Boston, and when Mondale was otherwise occupied, he was able to sit in Mondale’s seat and use the vice president’s phone and called his future wife, Peg, on the vice president’s phone.

But the jet life still did grab him.

It was not until later in the week when he was introduced to the First Helicopter Squadron, whose role was to fly U.S. political leaders to a safe location in the event of a national emergency.

“They put me on a helicopter flight,” Nelson recalled, noting the military would train and fly in the city of Baltimore. “There was a rooftop helipad that we came and landed on it. I will never forget when we were landing and taking off: It was in between two big old brick buildings. I remember taking off and counting those bricks. It was close right in there.”

“It clicked,” Nelson said. “I said, that is it. That is what I want to do. It was just like a light switch.”

When he got back to USC, his commandant, who was a jet pilot, tried to talk him out of being a helicopter pilot.

“He had a real bias about it,” Nelson said. “I stuck to my guns and I don’t regret it one bit.”

After graduation, Nelson worked part-time and enjoyed newlywed life.

Military service

In January 1981, he entered the Air Force as a second lieutenant and helicopter pilot.

Nelson’s first assignment was Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he did basic start-up training through October 1981. He was trained by both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force at the fort.

From there he was sent to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, where he received his first H-3 helicopter, graduating fifth out of class of eight.

His first assignment was at Shaw Air Force Base as part of the tactical air support squadrons.

“Nobody else wanted to go where I wanted to go,” Nelson said, noting he was happy to be heading back home to South Carolina.

The squadrons’ main purpose was to ready for quick dispersal in the event of a Soviet attack on the United States. The helicopters were designed to fly people and equipment for ground forces as well as a secondary rescue mission.

For the first 3-1/2 years at Shaw, he flew CH-3s and worked his way up the ranks of flying expertise. He never had to engage in live battle.

“Thank God we never had to do it,” Nelson said. “If we had to do our mission that would mean that the Soviet Union would have attacked Europe and we would have had World War III.”

Training with the CH-3 was done throughout the United States and Canada over those years.

After the three years, Nelson said he was transferred to Okinawa, Japan, where he got involved in combat rescue. He joined the 33rd rescue squadron at the Kadena Air Base.

There was he was flying the Sikorsky HH-3E, also known as the “Jolly Green Giant,” to perform combat search and rescue (CSAR) task forces to recover downed airmen during the Vietnam War.

The HH-3E carried both armor plating and armament to protect it from hostile forces during rescues of aircrews in a combat area.

“I never had to do it live,” Nelson said. “We practiced the mess out of it. We would go from Okinawa, to Korea, to the Philippines.”

As part of his training, his squadron joined rescue squadrons in Korea and the Philippines as part of “Jolly Drags,” supporting each other with five-hour training flights.

The hours and days of training came in handy one evening in June 1986.

Nelson said an F-15C pilot’s plane malfunctioned but he was able to eject safely, landing about 110 miles off the coast of Okinawa in the East China Sea.

Nelson was readying to go on a training flight as an instructor of the squadron, but his duty shifted. Nelson was qualified in night water operations and was the aircraft commander for the successful rescue operation. $1 for the first 26 weeks

“That is one of the moments I remember,” Nelson said, noting this was the first real-life rescue he was able to conduct. “I will never forget that woman (the pilot’s wife) coming in that helicopter and hugging her husband. I still get choked up about it. That did it for me. That was a great day.”

Nelson said though the squadron was considered the “stepchild,” in Okinawa for about two days the squadron was celebrated as heroes for the rescue.

“Our whole job for the first half of my Air Force career was to go in and save a fighter pilot who had a bad day and make sure he ends his day in a better position,” Nelson said. I was not one of those people that was a fighter pilot wanna-be.”

“I did exactly what I wanted to do in the military,” Nelson said. “I did not go out and fly a fast jet and do airbags and drop bombs on people. I very much supported the military in the mission and things that we did. The element that really called out to me was the rescue part of it.”

He would end up doing multiple tours to Kuwait and Turkey, supporting similar operations.

Six months after he left Okinawa, five guys –one of which Nelson knew in Shaw — perished during a night water operation training. The helicopter backed into the water, exploded and flipped over. Three of the five guys were lost.

“Tom was one that was lost,” Nelson said. “You lose those guys. We lost three of the five doing that maneuver.”

“Over the years where we had the losses is just people training,” Nelson said. “We did lose some in combat but it was mainly due to air refueling accidents. I have over two handfuls of friends and associates that lost lives doing what I do.”

After Okinawa, Nelson went to Montgomery, Alabama, to Maxwell Air Force Base to squadron officer school. There he trained young officers for three years to “be better young officers.”

“It is competitive,” Nelson said. “Everybody wanted to go to squadron officer school and be a distinguished graduate.”

After Alabama, Nelson went back to Kirtland Air Force Base and served as a H-3 instructor pilot at the air base in the early 1990s. He was one of the last to fly the H-3 helicopters as the aircraft was soon retired.

Nelson then became a H-60 pilot and instructor, also at Kirtland.

Nelson was transferred to Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland, where he flew the rescue H-60s.

The British had helped provide security to the country during World War II but when British troops had to leave to fight in the war, the United States established a presence in the country to house its fighter interceptors designed to be in place to attack Soviet bombers if they came across the ice caps, Nelson said.

“We had a lot of fighters who needed a rescue element there because if one of those fighters … went into that very cold water, they had about 15 minutes of life,” Nelson said. “It was great flying. It was a very hostile environment: cold, dark and windy.”

Nelson said while in Iceland, he did participate in a rescue as part of a formation.

“We never went anywhere except in formation,” Nelson said, noting the environment was too hostile to go alone.

Around Christmas 1994, Nelson was deployed as an operations officer from Iceland to Kuwait following the Gulf War to enforce the no-fly zone and to carry out rescue missions.

In a few years, he ended up at Holloman AFB in New Mexico as an operations officer. By this time, Nelson had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. At the base he continued to fly H-60s and served as an instructor.

Nelson left New Mexico to command the 41st Rescue Squadron at Moody AFB in Georgia. The squadron was considered one of the largest units in the world, with about 14 primary aircraft, Nelson said.

The Kosovo War had begun, so Nelson was deployed to Brindisi, Italy, where he flew across the Adriatic Ocean and did missions supporting the war effort. The helicopter squadron worked with special operations aircraft in conducting the rescue missions.

After Kosova, Nelson oversaw a number of deployments and rescue missions, including a rescue mission that traveled from Moody in Georgia to Bermuda to help a British cargo ship with a crew in distress.

“It was so busy,” he said. “All but two months we were deployed somewhere. We were just a real busy squadron.”

In addition to wartime deployments, Nelson oversaw non-conflict-related flights. 

One such flight required the squadron to be diverted from Kuwait to South Africa to Mozambique, Africa, in response to massive flooding rescues as part of Operation Atlas Response in 2000.

“I will never forgot calling those wives and telling them your husband is not coming home they have to go to this other thing,” Nelson said, holding back tears. “Those are things those guys are trained to do. I was proud of them for doing that.”

From Moody’s, Nelson went to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia during the War in Afghanistan, recalling how everyone was on high alert following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Nelson was responsible for scheduling and ensuring rescue assets for missions during the war from the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

“In our case, our aircraft were armored but we were defensive,” Nelson said. “In all my workings, we were what was considered a combative aircraft. In other words, we could legally under the rules of war be engaged.”

Nelson said while he never had to fire upon an enemy combatant, he did witness combat between other aircraft. For his service, he received five meritorious medals.

Taking flight in civilian life

As retirement from the U.S. Air Force neared, Nelson’s friend, who also served in the Air Force, hooked him up with a medical transport company in the United States called Omniflight CareForce.

Nelson joined the transport response unit in October 2005 prior to his retirement from the Air Force in February 2006. He trained on the Bell 206 helicopter while a member of the Air Force.

“For two or three months, I was getting paid by the Air Force and the CareForce,” he said. “I just retired from the Air Force and then, boom, right into doing what I was trained to do with CareForce in Columbia.”

Nelson officially joined the company, which has now become Air Methods LifeNet South Carolina, in the winter of 2007.

Since that time, Nelson has been the lead pilot at LifeNet 3 Base at the Regional Medical Center. He says he believes he has done over 1,500 medical missions in the past 15 years.

In both his military and civilian life, Nelson says there have been many nights away from home and family.

Nelson praised his wife of 42 years, Peg, for her dedication and faithfulness to be a military wife and her sacrifice for the family. The couple have a son, Jesse, and a daughter, Meg, and seven grandchildren.

“She was fantastic the whole time,” Nelson said, noting Peg’s service as a military wife was recognized in 1984 as she was named the Spouse of the Year at Shaw Air Force Base.

Nelson said what families have to go through is as much of a service as those who are wearing the uniform.

An example of this is when his wife Peg taught at a Christian school in Okinawa while they were overseas.

When he was away from his family at the air base in Okinawa, she got ill and the military chaplains and medical staff helped her while he could not be there.

“The military is your family,” Nelson said, holding back tears. “These were tremendous people you worked with. Working with that caliber of people is kind of what sustained me and being privileged enough to be a part of that. These were really special people.”

Now as a civilian pilot in the medical field, service continues to be a hallmark of his life.

“It is a box of chocolates every day,” he said. “In a given week, I am going to fly four or five flights and probably two or three of them probably save somebody’s life. You never know what is going to happen.”

He says he has gotten letters from parents thanking him for saving their child’s life. These letters are what keep him going.

In addition to his work with LifeNet, Nelson has served as a Calhoun County councilman for the past 12 years.

He chose not to run for re-election, having promised his constituents he would not run for more than three terms.

When he is not busy saving lives through LifeNet, Nelson is also currently raising 14 grass-fed Angus cows.

The couple also attend the Southern Methodist Church in the Sandy Run area, where they help tutor children.

When he does have down time, he is planning to go camping with his wife.

“We just need time off just the two of us,” he said.

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