With a Caribou, Mohawk, Bird Dog, Hueys, and Cobras, Army aviators are teaching the loudest history lesson you ever heard.
- By Shelby G. Spires
- Air & Space magazine, November 2003
(Page 2 of 6)
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.
“I slid right in there, strapped up, and it was just as I remembered it,” says McCormick. “I never had a problem.”
The Huey was easy for a 19-year-old to fly, but it was vulnerable to ground fire. The Army lost more than 1,200 to hostile fire during Vietnam. So, at first with field modifications and later with weapons added at the factory, Hueys were equipped to shoot back. Marine and Army units bolted 7.62-mm M60 machine guns and rocket pods to factory-built frames, which they then attached to the helicopters’ airframes. The gunships accompanied “slicks”—transports that weren’t loaded down with armament—to suppress ground fire as the slicks carried soldiers into the fight.
Sighting the rockets and guns on a Huey was a low-tech affair. A collapsible ring-and-ball gunsight was mounted in front of the pilot.
“It wasn’t technology at its highest, that’s for sure,” recalls Ron Osborne, who flew Huey gunships during a 1966-67 tour in Vietnam, then returned to lead the first Marine Corps Cobra squadron—HMC-369—in 1972. Today he works as a software engineer for the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, California.
He recalls: “There would be a grease mark on the bubble in front of the sight, and some guys would just slap chewing gum up on the Plexiglas bubble in front of them.”
Weighted down with bulky guns, rockets, and eventually grenade launchers—as well as the frame on which the guns and rockets were mounted—Huey gunships were unable to keep up with the improved UH-1H transports that began appearing in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.