Editor's note: The year of the incident between North and South Korea has been corrected to 1975. Two incorrect references to Vietnam in regard to that incident have also been removed.
Dennis Nelson was drawn to airplanes as a child, so it was a natural segue to the Air Force about a year after graduating from high school. He joined on Oct. 18, 1974, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and he completed his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. He went on to advanced training at Chanute AFB in Illinois. He started in petroleum oil lubrication and ended up in aircraft refueling.
His unit learned to set up a portable fuel system in remote areas such as Vietnam. Using a metal frame, a bladder and an engine, they could usually get their portable systems up and running within a couple of hours, he said.
Stationed at Mountain Home, Idaho, Nelson worked on the flight lines for two years.
“It was a good job. I enjoyed it. I liked being on the flight line and working with my hands. I liked the noise and energy of the flight lines, and I love the smell of fuel,” he said.
In 1975, there was an incident between North and South Korea, where a soldier was shot in the Demilitarized Zone. They deployed a squadron of F-111s from Mountain Home.
“We were all jazzed. We were going to see action finally,” Nelson said.
Quickly, they loaded up all of the supplies and were ready to go.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t happen,” Nelson said.
His next assignment was to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Air Force had just started Operation Red Flag, a program designed to simulate air combat enabling pilots to train for war.
“Pilots were trained to think like Russians and train like Russians,” he said. “It was so good it was only supposed to be one year, but they are still doing it today. They need to train the Ukrainians there.”
The training and bombing range was located just north of Las Vegas.
“It was the busiest place in the Air Force,” Nelson said. “Militaries from all nations would train there.”
Some of those countries include Canada, Great Britain and Australia. When Nelson was out on the flight lines, he would be stuck there for eight to 10 hours refueling.
“They would bring me food, and I would have to brown bag it. I got sick of fried chicken and bologna sandwiches,” he said.
An unusual occurrence happened while Nelson served at Nellis in 1978. The mountain ranges at Mount Charleston were notorious for having high winds and dangerous downdrafts. A plane went down. A helicopter was sent for search and rescue. It too went down. Two more helicopters were dispatched to the area. They also went down. Finally, the base commander took his private plane and his son to search and rescue any possible survivors. They also crashed.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” Nelson said. “I think they all died, but I’m not sure. It was pretty tragic.”
Nelson was at Nellis until he got out of the Air Force after his four-year stint on Oct. 17, 1978.
Nelson looked into the Reserves when he got out to check into the possibility of inflight refueling, but they didn’t offer that at the time. He would have to re-up to do it. If it had worked out, he would have been refueling in the air.
Instead, he started working for Lockheed Air Terminal and refueled commercial aircraft and stayed with the company for 23 years. He drove fuel tankers for them for experimental aircraft for Boeing and did refueling for NASA and China Lake Naval Air Station in the High Desert.
“I had a great run with Lockheed. I did that until 2002,” Nelson said.
After he retired, he drove fuel tankers for another four years for hauling jet fuel and Avgas and that was for two different companies.
After 50 years in California, he was tired of the politics. When he was stationed in Mountain Home, a friend from high school moved to Boise with his family and liked the area.
“Finally, 17 years ago, I made the move to Rexburg and never looked back,” he said.
He was working three different jobs simultaneously. He started transporting trucks and RVs, across the U.S. and Canada and also driving for the Salt Lake Express. After 10 years, he only drove for Salt Lake Express, continuing for another five years.
“This was where all my military training paid off, transportation of driving trucks and buses and refueling aircraft,” he said. “I loved the route going up to West Yellowstone, but the winter was hell.”
Now he has retired and enjoys spending time with his dog and kitties and traveling.
“I had time to travel to Europe for five weeks. We toured 12 countries,” he said. “I’d been working like a donkey for too long, and life’s too short.”
Nelson said the military made a positive impact on his life.
“At a very young age it established a foundation of responsibility in my life of being able to take care of myself and it laid the groundwork for my future career in the workforce,” he said. “What I liked about the military was the camaraderie, working with many different people from all walks of life. There’s absolutely nothing I disliked about serving in the military.”
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