When John Sheldon first took the controls of a helicopter in Dorset, 40 years ago yesterday, he had no clue that he would spend the next four decades flying them around every corner of the world.
His astonishing career has matched almost exactly the story of the British military’s involvement in five continents – wherever the Government has sent our troops, and sometimes to where they would not dare to go, John and his helicopter have been.
Yesterday, as he arrived back at the base at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset, 40 years to the day since that first flight, he was greeted with a surprise reception with family, friends and former colleagues turning out to mark the achievement.
Warrant Officer Aircrewman Sheldon has flown six of the British military’s helicopters: the Merlin, Wessex, Chinook, Lynx, Gazelle and Sea King, and has notched more than 8,000 flying hours.
He now is with the Commando Helicopter Force in Yeovilton as a naval reserve, training potential aircrewmen of the future.
He’s just been told he can serve for another three years as a reserve – he celebrates his 60th birthday in the New Year.
He has taken his helicopters to every corner of the globe since that first flight in 1972. The first time he operated under fire came in Cyprus in 1974, when he flew in to evacuate British citizens as the Turkish invasion sparked a war that summer.
In Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, he operated helicopters in the treacherous border country, and his ‘hairiest’ moment came in the Falklands in 1982.
“We got attacked by Argentine fast jets and took a cannon shell through one of the blades,” he said, matter of factly.
“We were lucky in that we were able to land safely and repair it, and get on our way again, but that’s probably the hairiest moment I’ve had, I suppose,” he said.
In the 1980s, as it was in Cyprus, John’s helicopter represented a way out provided by Her Majesty to stricken Brits, when Beirut and the rest of Lebanon descended into civil war, and the second 20 years have been even more action-packed than the first, with the Gulf War of 1991, the war in Bosnia and Serbia in the mid-1990s, the action in Sierra Leone in 2000 and then in the past decade in Afghanistan.
He began his career in the Royal Navy, transferred for a time to the RAF, flying Chinooks, before ‘seeing the light’, according to the RNAS Yeovilton spokesman, and returned to the Royal Navy via the Reserve Air Branch.
“It was a real surprise to be greeted with this today,” he said yesterday.
“I knew it was 40 years to the day since my first flight, because one never forgets it.
“But I had no idea this was happening, it was so unexpected, but it’s lovely..
“My first flight was down in Portland and I might have been in a helicopter before as a passenger, but never taking control.
“It was a bit daunting to begin with, but I’ve done it so many times now that after 40 years to me it’s just like driving a car,” he said.
“I still love doing it, I really enjoy it,” he added.
His wife Catherine and sons Simon and Kieran joined his colleagues at Yeovilton yesterday to mark the incredible milestone.