Crude. Flying over Vietnam in a Bell UH-1 Huey meant a canvas seat in the back and hot, humid air whistling into the cabin around the pilots’ doors.
Adaptable. Hang rockets on a Huey, grease-pencil an “X” on the canopy to aim by, and it was a gunship. Load it with casualties and it was an air ambulance.
Enduring. Today the Huey remains the most identifiable symbol of the Vietnam War—in everything from movies, where the noise of its rotors instantly sets the scene, to Broadway, where its silhouette represents the war on a Miss Saigon marquee.
In Vietnam, the military helicopter graduated from an underdeveloped promise to a formidable weapon. Among its peers, which included the aging, piston-powered H-19 and H-21, the HU-1, with its strong and reliable turbine engine, quickly earned a reputation for dependability and proved itself the best equipped helicopter to execute a new and mobile style of warfare. When the HU-1 went to Vietnam, it shed its given name, Iroquois, and took a moniker derived from the letters in its designation. Later, when the Department of Defense began using the Air Force naming standard, the letters were swapped and the helicopter became UH-1, but the nickname Huey stuck. Every branch of the U.S. military would soon be flying the rugged and versatile helo, as would the air forces of South Vietnam, Australia, and Cambodia.
But the cost of the helicopter war was high: The Army lost 2,249 to hostile fire—more than half of them Hueys—and 2,075 to accidents; the Marines lost 424 to all causes. Between 1966 and 1971, one Army helicopter was lost for every 7.9 sorties—564 pilots, 1,155 crewmen, and 682 passengers were killed in accidents alone. More Hueys were downed in Vietnam than any other type of aircraft.
The large-scale transport of troops to the battlefield by helicopter in Vietnam rendered World War II-style airborne operations, which relied on paratroopers dropping into hostile areas, obsolete—only one major parachute assault was conducted during the war. The Army centered its airmobile operations around Vertol CH-47 Chinooks and Hueys, referred to as “slicks” because they lacked external armament. Arriving in formations so tight that the rotors of neighboring helos overlapped, the slicks moved troops and equipment to the battlefield with unprecedented speed.
It was a solution born of its times. Modern adversaries are likely to be much better equipped than the Viet Cong—a few shoulder-fired missiles would stop a Vietnam-style air assault mission (flown at high altitude before spiralling into the landing zone) very quickly, says Robert Mason, who wrote Chickenhawk, a recollection of his experiences as a Huey pilot in Vietnam. “It proved it could work…,” says Mason. “But it probably wouldn’t happen again because [with the proliferation of weapons available] we wouldn’t have a situation where we would have total air superiority.” The Army and Marine Corps still practice air assault today, but only in conjunction with overwhelming fire support, and often while using Global Positioning System navigation, infrared terrain following, and night-vision goggles.
But for Huey pilots like Mason, troop insertion meant low-tech visual navigation to tiny landing zones over roads and other landmarks in a vast expanse of jungle, mountains, and hills, sometimes with only door-mounted machine guns for protection. Mason, who today is helping to develop a documentary about Vietnam helicopter flying for PBS, describes an air assault in Chickenhawk:
I think this was my first as a command-ship pilot, and I was for survival. I would’ve been very happy flying the brigade commander up there at 5,000 feet, or [General William] Westmoreland to his apartment in Saigon. It’s amazing how many places I considered being besides there.