BOB SCHRADER ARRIVED IN SAIGON ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, 1963, aboard a de Havilland CV-2B Caribou, tail number 62-4149. He was the assistant crew chief on the aircraft, a 19-year-old Army private first class who had come to think of the ’Bou, as Army crewmen referred to the type, as his airplane.
"Everybody always has an airplane they like,” says Schrader. “For me it was -149.” But he lost track of it—heard it had crashed—during the year he served in Vietnam. In the 40 years since, he has spoken only rarely about the airplane or his wartime experiences, though they have occupied his thoughts. “They were my stories,” says Schrader, a retired construction manager who lives in North Dakota, 54 miles from the South Dakota farm where he grew up. “They didn’t really have anything to do with my wife or my family. Most people have one closet in their bedroom at home. I’ve got two—my closet and my Vietnam closet."
Three years ago, Schrader found something on the Internet that made him open the door to his Vietnam closet and sort through some of the memories stored there. On the Web site of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, a group that performs reenactments of Army aerial combat, he saw a photograph of a CV-2B Caribou. Its tail number was 62-4149. “All these years, I thought it had crashed,” he says. “It was kind of emotional, really.” Schrader has a strong Fargo accent and a kind manner, and only a few minutes into a conversation with him, you’re thinking “Nice guy.” So you’re happy to hear that he was re-united with -149—in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where members of the foundation were showing it off at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s 2000 fly-in event. “Once I discovered the airplane was around, well, I had to become part of it again,” he says. Schrader now travels from Kindred, North Dakota, to Atlanta, Georgia, five times a year to help keep -149 in the air. It’s the only Caribou still flying in the Western hemisphere and one of 22 aircraft in the fleet of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation.
More than 800 veterans have joined the organization since its creation in 1997, many of them finding, as Schrader did, a connection to a past that has been difficult for them to assimilate into the present. But the veterans in the 1,000-member organization form only part of the group intended to benefit from it, according to its 54-year-old founder, Mike Brady, an airline entrepreneur, commercially rated fixed- and rotary-wing pilot, and Army veteran. Brady’s father, a retired major general and chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, was a combat crewman on Navy aircraft in World War II and flew Army helicopters during two tours in Vietnam. In April 1997, Brady had built his fourth airline, Northwest Airlink, into a regional powerhouse, with 2,000 employees and 70 aircraft carrying 1.9 million people annually in 22 states. He was weeks from finalizing its sale to Northwest Airlines (a very lucrative deal for him, as it turned out) and was casting about for his next project. He wanted to do something altruistic, he says, something significant. “I grew up around Army aviation,” says Brady, “and I wanted to be an Army aviator but couldn’t” for medical reasons. Inspired by a TV news segment about an Army sergeant who visited classrooms to explain what serving his country had meant to him, Brady decided on a goal: to teach the country about Army aviation and “to re-connect the American soldier,” in his words, to the American people. “The military is an oddity to a lot of people,” Brady says. “They don’t know, for example, that the Army flies aircraft. When I ask them, they say, ‘Oh, you mean the air corps of World War II. Aren’t they part of the Air Force today?’ ”
Brady’s educational program draws on marketing acumen developed during 30 years in the airline business. The airshow act he created is dazzling and loud. “You’ve got to grab your audience,” he says. He estimates the cumulative audience of the foundation’s 62 appearances at seven million.
Last May the audience at an airshow in Fort Rucker, Alabama, stayed through a rain delay of about an hour then braved threatening skies to watch foundation volunteers simulate a typical airborne cavalry attack as it would have happened during the Vietnam War. Their demonstration begins with a pass by the foundation’s Grumman OV-1B Mohawk reconnaissance airplane, the only OV-1B still flying. With a triple tail, twin turboprops mounted atop the wings, and ogle-y observation windows nearly encasing the cockpit, the Mohawk is an attention-getter on its own (see “The Last of the Mohawks,” Feb./Mar 1997). But the next aircraft on the field is even more entertaining: a Hughes (later McDonnell Douglas) OH-6 Cayuse scout helicopter used to find enemy positions. At some shows the little tadpole-like OH-6, a light observation helicopter, or “Loach,” as its crews called it, teams up with a Bell AH-1G Cobra attack helicopter in the hunter-killer combination that prowled Vietnam. The Loach dips and climbs and turns; it skitters across the field looking for hidden gun emplacements. It pulls up and maneuvers to escape them. In contrast to the Loach’s constant, nervous activity, the hovering Cobra looks even more menacing than it otherwise would. Dark, lean, and aloof, it lurks in the distance, waiting for the Loach to find it a target.
As the Loach yo-yos around the edges of the airfield, two Hueys, door guns blazing, fly to the center and land. The troops they carry leap onto the field and search for cover in what the audience is to believe is a hot landing zone. When the Hueys depart, the Cobra charges in with its de-fanged 7.62-mm mini-gun spitting fire and rocket tubes puffing streams of smoke. It pretends to attack reenactors portraying Vietnamese guerrilla fighters. Explosions rip across the airfield, where earlier the pyrotechnics crew had planted small charges, and spew sod into the air.
“This is pretty much how it went every day while I was over there,” says Dick Teipel, a foundation member who flew Caribous between 1964 and 1967 and went back to Vietnam as a Huey pilot in 1968. “They’ve got it down just the way it was.”
Of course the way it was evolved a good deal. As the U.S. military relied more and more on helicopters for a number of combat missions, aircraft manufacturers invented new types to offer improved performance. When the United States began military support of South Vietnam, the Kennedy administration sent maintenance-heavy, underpowered, piston-engine helicopters, like the Marines’ Sikorsky UH-34 Choctaw (see “Dog of War,” June/July 2001) and the Army’s 86-foot-long Vertol CH-21 Shawnee (also known as the Flying Banana) to transport troops and cargo. But simplicity was on its way in the form of the much more powerful, turbine-driven Bell UH-1, which the Army christened Iroquois, a name all but lost after a nickname emerged from the aircraft’s original designation, HU-1, for “helicopter, utility”: Huey. By the end of the war, more than 5,000 Hueys had served in Vietnam, as troop transports, medevac craft, and gunships (see “Huey,” Apr./May 2000).
The foundation has eight UH-1H Hueys and operates three of them at a time at airshows, offering rides at $40 a seat. Seeing—and hearing—the helicopters return to pick up another load of 10 eager customers is reminiscent of watching Hueys carry troops on the nightly news in the late ’60s—until the passengers hop out, grinning and high-fiving one another, and wave gratefully to the pilots. Jack McCormick, a 767 captain with Delta Air Lines, flew Hueys with the Army’s 229th Aviation Battalion and flies them for the foundation today. “It had been 28 years since I last took a Huey into a hover,” McCormick says of the checkout flight he was required to make in order to fly the helicopter at airshows. “I didn’t know what to expect. But I was always told that the reason the Huey was so well respected—loved, even—was because it was easy to fly.