Finally, Twardzik’s squadron skipper could take no more. He strode to his 34 and announced that he was going for a ride, and if anyone wanted to join him, he wouldn’t stop them. The entire squadron fired up and headed for the valley. The skipper and three other 34s in the first wave were immediately shot down. It was late in the day, so the surviving helos returned to Phu Bai to regroup. First thing the next morning, the Angry Eyes returned to the LZ and began pulling out soldiers.
Twardzik remembers his aircraft taking fire from a .50-caliber machine gun. Eventually it found them. Twardzik took a ricochet squarely on his flak jacket, and during liftoff the impact blew him out the door. His safety belt snapped him right back into the cabin, where another round hit and ignited a five-gallon can of crankcase oil. The pilot autorotated down into a clearing, where the crew pitched the flaming can out and extinguished the fire. With the engine restarted and the rotors re-engaged, they took off, dragging the main gear through the trees as they headed back to Phu Bai. “I got out of the 34 to view the damage, and the aircraft was literally sieved with bullet holes,” Twardzik says. The Angry Eyes nonetheless managed to save every one of the HMM-163 air crewmen who’d gone down the day before, as well as 190 of the 220 Special Forces troops.
Moriarty’s UH-34D was originally an HSS-1N he found corroding in a New England farm field. He bought it without realizing what he was in for. “I paid $45,000 for it, figured we’d fill it with gas and fly away. What did I know?”
Moriarty himself couldn’t fly it, since he had never flown a helicopter, so the hulk was trucked to a restoration shop in Tucson, Arizona. “I had no reason to believe that it was anything I could ever fly,” he admits. “This is one huge, powerful, noisy, intimidating machine.” But Moriarty learned to fly helos in a little two-seat Hiller and added a rotary wing rating to his pilot’s license. “At the end of my first trip riding in the left [helicopter copilot] seat, I began to figure maybe I could learn to fly this thing,” he says. “If you can fly an underpowered little Hiller, you can do aerobatics with an H-34, it’s so powerful.”
He wouldn’t fly the first aerobatics in a 34. “Oh yeah, they were maneuverable,” laughs Joe Scholle. “I remember a guy did a couple of rolls and then looped it, for the benefit of the A-4 and F-4 pilots sitting on the beach at Chu Lai, in late ’67. Of course, you don’t get a real circle out of it; it looks more like a backward nine.”
Moriarty has logged over 400 hours in YL-42, much of that flying to airshows. He and his crew chief, J.T. Nelson, wear full Marine flightsuits, complete with flight crew wings and HMM-362 squadron patches and insignia. At first you think Uh oh—middle-aged men playing boy soldiers, but in fact they do all of it out of respect for the tradition, history, and sacrifice that YL-42 represents. “One of the rules of the aircraft,” Moriarty says, “is that when you fly or crew it, you wear the uniform. Not because I think it’s fun but because I want to honor the people who flew them. I will not fly this aircraft in shorts or jeans or tennis shoes.”
At U.S. airshows the missing link seems to be Vietnam-era aircraft, especially helicopters, say those who applaud Moriarty’s effort. The aircraft attracts a crowd of people who want to see things exactly the way they used to be. Some aircraft owners charge a fee to climb into the cockpit or whatever, but not Moriarty.
One remarkable feature of his helo, although few notice it, is that all of the complex data stencils on the underside of its four rotor blades are in French: The blades are surplus parts from an Armée de l’Air H-34. Even though YL-42 is 40 years old, getting spare parts is not a problem. Various versions served with the Coast Guard and CIA as well as 25 nations—even the Soviet Union: When Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev visited President Dwight Eisenhower in 1959, before the U-2 spyplane incident soured their relations, he rode in Ike’s Marine One, a UH-34D, and liked it so much that he bought two of them.
The government sold tens, even hundreds of 34s for pennies a pound, Moriarty points out. “It costs $150,000 to $250,000 to buy one now and make it ready for flight, and when you’re done, you have an aircraft with a market value substantially less than that. All offshore [oil industry] work is twin engine, and jet choppers are far more reliable. So there’s very little economic justification for keeping 34s in the air, and as a result, the hundreds of them sitting in boneyards and back yards will provide a source of parts for years to come.”
Moriarty guesses that last year, 20,000 people clambered through and around YL-42 at various shows. “At first, I wondered: Should I put a rope around it, only let certain people get close to it?” he admits. “But I decided no, that wasn’t going to be its mission. You see kids up in the cockpit, their feet can’t even reach the floor, and you can tell they imagine themselves as heroes, as people someday willing to fight for their country, as people who want to care for and protect others. They need to be able to touch that dream.”