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(Lt. Col. S.F. Watson (U.S. Army) Collection/NASM)

The World's Best Pickup Truck

A mainstay of air transportation, the Huey provided the soundtrack to the Vietnam War

The U.S. Army's UH-1 helicopter, better known as the "Huey," flew more than seven million flight hours between October 1966 and December 1975. Include the Huey Cobra model, and the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association estimates that the Huey had more combat flight time than any other aircraft in the history of warfare.

The UH-1 “sprang from the cold, muddy battlefields of the Korean War, where the original M*A*S*H helicopter, the Bell 47, recovered thousands of wounded soldiers and delivered them straight to critical care units,” writes David Hanselman in the National Air and Space Museum's collection notes for this fabled aircraft. In 1954, when the U.S. Army launched a design competition for a new medical evacuation helicopter, Bell Helicopter Company was expected to compete for the contract since their -47 had performed so well in Korea.

According to the diaries of Bell engineer Bartram Kelley, who designed the Huey, the Army wanted a helicopter that could carry a payload of 800 pounds, with a top speed of 131 knots and a maximum endurance of 2.7 hours. The requirements called for a pilot and medical attendant to be able to take off from an unprepared area, day or night, and land at a pre-determined destination on an unprepared area. There they would pick up two litter patients and return to the point of departure.

The Army was impressed enough with Bell’s XH-40 prototype to sign a contract for 200 medevac helicopters, plus an additional 100 to use as trainers to teach pilots to fly at night and in bad weather. And so began the saga of the Huey, which became a familiar sight in the sky for an entire generation of soldiers.

See the gallery below to learn more about the Bell UH-1’s history. All photographs are part of the Lt. Col. S.F. Watson (U.S. Army) Collection at the National Air and Space Museum.

Above: Two Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters in flight over Vietnam, circa late 1960s/early 1970s.

Bell UH-1 Iroquois

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(Lt. Col. S.F. Watson (U.S. Army) Collection/NASM)

The 204, briefly labeled the H-40 before becoming the HU-1 (for Helicopter, Utility, Model 1), was designed by engineering genius Bartram Kelley, who joined Bell Aircraft Company in 1941, and became chief engineer of the helicopter division a few years later.

Kelley's diaries and engineering notebooks (nearly 50 in all) are part of the National Air and Space Museum's archives. When Kelley received the Alexander Klemin Award from the American Helicopter Society in 1955, he wrote in his diary: "Recently a group of us had the good fortune to be guests of the United States Navy aboard a small carrier at sea for 8 days. There were no airplanes, but there were 17 helicopters.... We were all of us constantly on deck throughout the 8 days to see the flight activities, and closely watched every take-off & landing, hour after hour. One of the sailors happened to notice my concentrated interest, and finally said to me: 'What's the matter? Haven't you ever seen helicopters before?' I could think of nothing better to answer than—'No, I haven't!' It would have been impossible to explain to him that after 15 years the novelty has not worn off, & that I will probably never tire of watching any helicopter take off at sea or on land."

Above: Three Bell UH-1 Iroquois landing or taking off in Vietnam, circa late 1960s/early 1970s.

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