Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association meets in San Antonio

‘The average age of our group is now 80 years old, so we’re pleased that we still have this degree of participation’

SAN ANTONIO – Bob Hesselbein, a Vietnam War veteran and former helicopter pilot, received his U.S. Army pilot wings in November 1971.

“It was 1970 — high school graduate, and it was a time of uncertainty. I came from a very working-class family, and there was no money for college, so I knew I was going to get drafted. I was sure,” said Hesselbein.

Hesselbein’s story is like many pilots who flew dangerous missions together, facing enemy fire, and supporting ground troops with airstrikes.

On Monday, Hesselbein and about 700 other Vietnam helicopter pilots came together from different corners of the country to share their stories and relive their experiences.

“We’ve had 18,000 helicopter pilots who served in combat join our organization. Now we have about 9,000 who we consider active, and at this reunion, we’re going to have 700 of them gather. The average age of our group is now 80 years old. So we’re pleased that we still have this degree of participation,” said Hesselbein.

Monday’s reunion is not only about reconnecting with old friends but also connecting Gold Star families who lost loved ones in Vietnam with more information about their family members.

“As someone who lost her brother in the Vietnam War — my brother was killed at age 19, flying helicopters when I was 8 years old — so I didn’t know very much about him at all,” said Julie Kink, a Gold Star sister.

With the help of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA), Kink said she had a chance to learn more about her brother’s death in Vietnam.

“I now know what happened in my brother’s crash. I know not only how he died but also, more importantly, how he lived through the men who served in Vietnam with him, and that allows me to look around the area here and see guys with gray hair, guys who are retired, and see what my brother would have been like had he survived,” said Kink.

Hesselbein says the VHPA is a last-man-standing organization that will probably close in the next 15 years and wants to leave a legacy of service after their own service to the country.

For more information on The Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, click here.

About the Author

Jonathan Cotto is a reporter for KSAT’s Good Morning San Antonio. He’s a bilingual award-winning news reporter and he joined KSAT in 2021. Before coming to San Antonio, Cotto was reporting along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas. He’s a veteran of the United States Navy.

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