At the seasoned age of 50, most military members have long retired from serving their country and are well into a second civilian career. For Chief Master Sgt. Melvin Sells, the sky is still the limit. In fact, the skies are where he longs to be, flying missions for the Air Force.
Having flown several dangerous deployments since 1989, Sells, an 811th Operations Group superintendent, currently flies occasional local missions with the 1st Helicopter Squadron throughout the National Capital Region. To date, Sells has proudly participated in nearly 25 deployments unscathed.
A veteran of more than 28 years service, Sells enjoys supporting missions in the nation's Capital. However, he relishes the excitement of past overseas deployments in contrast to the serene and colorful local missions flown over the basin of the Potomac River during cherry blossom season.
Sells participated in his first life-threatening mission while supporting Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989. It was his first mission in combat zone. His helicopter was tasked to provide fire support to a special operations team that was exposed to enemy fire.
Sells routinely receives queries from young Airmen about the large number of ribbons on his uniform. He eagerly takes advantage of those 'teachable moments,' sharing war stories with Airmen who are destined to go on future deployments.
With so many medals and deployments to his credit, Sells' life reads like a combat novel. One of his more rewarding deployments was to Afghanistan from May to Sept. 2009.
“I was flying on the HH-60G “Pave Hawk” from the 66th Rescue Squadron. There I was performing Combat Search and Rescue," Sells remembered. Sells' crew was ultimately credited with 51 saves and 146 assists.
“We had a two-and-a-half minute engagement with anti-aircraft artillery along with rocket-propelled grenades coming at us simultaneously, said Sells. “I actually had to return fire to defend our helicopter as well as the other helicopter in the formation.” Sells was jointly responsible for helping several members return to their families alive.
“It was great to see that we actually made a difference in so many lives, not only for the service members but their loved ones as well,” Sells said.
Sells' other deployments included flying in a MH-53J PAVE LOW helicopter during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, working with Special Forces.
“It was interesting and made a difference by hampering the enemy's ability to inflict major damage on coalition forces,” said Sells. “Leading the Apache helicopters across the border to destroy enemy early warning radar sites the first night of the Gulf War during the early hours of Jan. 17, 1991 was exciting as we dodged three Surface-to-Air missiles while exiting the country. It was worth the many hours of flying and all the training we had done leading up to this historic event.”
Sells' crew was tasked to search for the crew of a French Mirage aircraft shot down deep inside Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Their first night was unsuccessful and uneventful, but the following night was anything but. Sells' helicopter was shot at four times during the 30-minute search, and three additional times on the three-hour flight back to base. During one of the engagements on the flight back, Sells' helicopter was struck with small arms fire and two of the crew members were hit with shrapnel. Those crew members were awarded the Purple Heart.
In 1996, while executing a noncombatant evacuation operation in Monrovia, Liberia, Sells and his crew were responsible for the evacuation of 1,679 foreign nationals and 435 Americans. During one approach into the embassy to evacuate personnel his helicopter was fired upon with rocket propelled grenades. Sells saw the explosion off their tail where it had hit the water behind them. The mission was subsequently abandoned until it the situation became more secure.
While departing Baghdad International Airport in 2003, Sells' flight received small arms fire from about 200 meters away after performing evasive maneuvers. Only two minutes later his helo received ground fire again and took evasive maneuvers.
“We were headed toward a set of nearly invisible power lines 200 feet above the ground, and I called for an immediate climb which prevented certain impact,” Sells said.
In Afghanistan in 2009, Sells was conducting a CSAR mission to recover two Marines who were critically wounded during a firefight. As his helicopter formation approached the landing zone with reported enemy positions 300 meters to the north, south and west of the fire fight he was exposed to enemy fire from less than 100 meters away.
“My helicopter was struck three times with small arms fire, merely feet away from where I was sitting in the helicopter. We aborted the approach, performed a Battle Damage Assessment before returning to pick up the second wounded Marine after determining the helicopter was airworthy,” said Sells.
With thousands of hazardous flight hours behind him, Sells stills enjoys being airborne because he feels he was born to fly.
“Getting a flying job right out of basic was truly a blessing and I still enjoy being airborne and out of the office,” Sells said.
When he left home in McCormick, SC. in 1984, his initial motivation was to join the Air Force and find something exciting and meaningful to do with his life.
“Looking back after all these years," Sells said, "I have the satisfaction of knowing I participated and lived through many of our country's undertakings to help make others better off, safer, and ensured they received the respect and dignity all humans deserve.”