ROSE HILL, Kan. (KSNW) — When you first arrive at the home of Dick Helzer, it feels like you’re entering a ranch straight out of a picture book. From the metallic entry gate proudly displaying the name ‘Helzer’ on it, to the long winding gravel driveway, to the horses galloping in the pasture, the peace and quiet found here is truly breathtaking.
That quiet atmosphere is certainly a much different environment than what the homeowner was used to for 20 years, six months and four days to be exact.
“I had it in my head that millions had gone through before me, and I could make it,” Helzer said.
With three uncles who served in World War II and one who served in World War I, it seemed Helzer was destined for a career in the military.
As a young airman, Helzer got his start as a jet engine mechanic at the former Schilling Air Force Base in Salina.
“I worked the hot section on the engine,” Helzer said. “I did from the back turbine wheel and all that.”
Working as part of a five-man crew, Helzer maintained up to 60 B-47’s on the base.
“Planes would be coming in from Africa, and engines would be running out of gas,” Helzer said.
With the help of his crew, Helzer says he could take an engine in at 10 o’clock in the morning and have it fixed by the time he finished up for the day — at times, he would even help test the engines themselves.
“So I’d get out there, and they’d say, ‘You see Helzer coming around the runway yet?’ ‘Yeah, he’s out on the runway, yeah, already there.’ And I was helping them hook up the engines,” Helzer said.
According to Helzer, some tests ran a bit more smoothly than others.
“I was a two-striper, and I was running test[s] at night by myself with a three-level, and I caught it on fire one night,” Helzer said.
Thankfully, no one was hurt in the incident. After earning his stripes, Helzer’s superiors recognized the young airman’s potential, pushing him to further his career when he ironically was considering ending it.
“[My superior] said, ‘Helzer, if you’re not going to re-enlist, you’re not going to spare analyzer school.’ So I had to admit I was going to re-enlist,” Helzer said.
Helzer would continue to test aircraft engines at Schilling until the base closed in 1965. He then moved on to both Mather and Walker Air Force Bases.
“I had never worked with tankers or bombers. Went down there in June and went to work on the flight line, and I ran my first B-52 by myself in August,” Helzer said.
At times, Helzer would work on a plane mid-flight. His favorite plane to perform maintenance on was the B-52.
“We’d fly 10-12, 13 B-52s and that many 135s every day out of there,” Helzer said. “I got to go on a B-52 once from Mather to Puerto Rico and back—’bout 40, 50,000 feet, and just smooth and quiet.”
After making Staff Sergeant, Helzer was assigned to go to Vietnam.
“I said, ‘Well, I gotta go now, ‘cuz my brother was already there,'” Helzer said.
Stationed near Saigon, Helzer’s skills would be put to the ultimate test, working on jet engines around the clock.
“We worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” Helzer said. “When I first got there, no, we didn’t have a lot of experience. We flew them F-4s, we had RF-101s, RB-57s, C-123, K-models, which had the little jet engines on them and they also sprayed the foliage.”
Helzer said he was one of the lucky ones, adding he didn’t lose any close friends during the war.
“There were only two or three places you could go and always stayed together,” Helzer said.
After his tour of Vietnam, Helzer was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, where he would stay for the next seven years.
“That was the best duty you could ever have,” Helzer said. “We were manned 24/7, so we had looking glass airplanes, and one couldn’t land until we took off.”
After attending a Noncommissioned Officer Academy (NCOS) in Alabama, Helzer says he came back to a particularly tough challenge on base.
“We had an inspection, and the [engine] went unsatisfactory rating, so I told the grant chief, ‘I want that,'” Helzer said. “I got the first outstanding rating in SAC (Strategic Air Command) in 18 months,” Helzer said.
Helzer eventually became the engine shop chief. After short stints at McConnell, the Philippines, and Dias Air Force Base, Helzer retired a Senior Master Sergeant.
“You gotta show me I can’t do it, and you gotta document it, and I said, ‘By that time, I’ll retire,'” Helzer said with a laugh.
If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at email@example.com.