If you remember Vietnam, you remember the Bell UH-1.
- By John Sotham
- Air & Space magazine, May 2000
US Army photo. NASM 9A00345
(Page 5 of 7)
As effective as they were for getting troops and supplies to the battlefield, slicks were especially vulnerable to enemy fire as they neared the landing zone. Soon after the Huey’s arrival in Vietnam, a few were outfitted with two .30-caliber machine guns and rocket pods to escort assault landings and medical evacuation Hueys. Some were loaned to the Navy, which used them to support attack boats that patrolled the Mekong Delta. By 1963, factory-built UH-1C gunships began to arrive in Vietnam. The UH-1C could also be fitted with a chin-mounted 40-mm grenade launcher or M-60 machine gun, as well as 20-mm cannon pods, often through field modifications.
But all that hardware came at a cost. Pilots of Huey gunships had difficulty keeping up with the speedier slicks they were supposed to escort. Loaded down with guns and ammunition, the lifting power of a UH-1C gunship “could hardly pull the slack out of your shorts,” says Jeff Stayton, a helicopter pilot who flew in Vietnam and is now the director of the Army’s Test and Evaluation Command.
In 1966 the Army quickly fielded a private venture from Bell, a purpose-designed gunship with the same transmission and rotor system as the HU-1C. The new Hueycobra, flown by the Army and Marines, was armed with 3,000 pounds of rockets, grenades, guns, and ammunition but was nearly twice as fast as a Huey.
Bob Drury flew Hueycobra gunships in 1969 and 1970 from Chu Lai, an air base located about 90 miles south of Da Nang in South Vietnam. One mission sticks in his memory more than any other:
Drury had told the Dustoff (medevac) pilot exactly what to do. The best flight path into the LZ for the unarmed medical evacuation Huey was above the trees—they’d block the enemy’s sight and limit his line of fire.
But the Dustoff pilot didn’t heed the warning; he flew over a rice paddy, was hit, and crashed. Fortunately, the crew survived and was picked up by another Huey. A second Dustoff picked up the wounded and hastily left the LZ while Drury and his fellow Cobra pilots kept a careful watch and softened up the treeline with their rockets.
More than 25 years later, even while Drury is at home in Iowa with his wife and three children, the exasperation quickly rises in his voice as he recalls that day. “My first reaction was, ‘You dumb son of a bitch. I told you to stay over the trees.’ But in defense of him, that’s what he had been trained not to do. That mission sticks in my mind because it was the only time I lost a Dustoff. Gunship pilots had the feeling that our job was to protect those people. When we couldn’t do our job, it was unbelievably frustrating, and if we lost a ship, it was just gut-wrenching.”
Gunship pilots like Drury flew a variety of missions, including visual reconnaissance, fire support for ground operations, and escort for troop-carrying slicks and Dustoffs evacuating the wounded. “The adrenaline rush that goes with flying those missions is incredible,” Drury says. “You’ve got so many things going on in the cockpit and there are so many things going on around you.”