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.
In assaults, we usually started drawing fire at 1,000 feet, sometimes at 500. This time we didn’t.
At 500 feet, on a glide path to the clearing, smoke from the just completed prestrike by our artillery and gunships drifted straight up in the still air. There had to be one time when the prep actually worked and everybody was killed in the LZ [landing zone]. I hoped this might be it.
Fighting my feeling of dread, I went through the automatic routine of checking the smoke drift for wind direction. None. We approached from the east, three ships lined up in a trail, to land in the skinny LZ. But it was too quiet!
At 100 feet above the trees, closing on the near end of the LZ, the door gunners in Yellow One started firing. They shot into the trees at the edge of the clearing, into the bushes, anywhere they suspected the enemy was hiding. There was no return fire. The two gunships on each side of our flight opened up with their flex guns. Smoke poured out of them as they crackled. My ears rang with the loud but muffled popping as my door gunners joined in with the rest. I ached to have my own trigger. With so many bullets tearing into the LZ, it was hard to believe anyone on the ground could survive.
The gunships had to stop firing as we flared close to the ground because we could be hit by ricocheting bullets. Still no return fire. Maybe they were all dead! Could this be the wrong spot?
My adrenaline was high, and I was keenly aware of every movement of the ship. I waited for the lurch of dismounting troopers as the skids neared the ground. They were growling and yelling behind me, psyched for battle. I could hear them yelling above all the noise. I still can.
My landing was synchronized with the lead ship, and as our skids hit the ground, so did the boots of the growling troops.
At the same instant, the uniformed regulars from the North decided to spring their trap. From at least three different directions, they opened up on our three ships and the off-loading grunts with machine-gun crossfire. The LZ was suddenly alive with their screaming bullets. I tensed off the controls, involuntarily leaning forward, ready to take off. I had to fight the logical reaction to leave immediately. I was light on the skids, the troops were out. Let’s go! [Dan] Farris [Mason’s squad leader] yelled on the radio for Yellow One to go. They didn’t move.
The grunts weren’t even making it to the trees. They had leapt out, screaming murderously, but now they dropped all around us, dying and dead. The lead ship’s rotors still turned, but the men inside did not answer. I saw the sand spurt up in front of me as bullets tore into the ground. My stomach tightened to stop them. Our door gunners were firing over the prone grunts at phantoms in the trees.
A strange quietness happened in my head. The scene around me seemed far away. With the noise of the guns, the cries of the gunners about everybody being dead and Farris calling for Yellow One to go, I thought about the bullets coming through the Plexiglas, through my bones and guts and through the ship and never stopping. A voice echoed in the silence. It was Farris yelling, “Go! Go! Go!”
I reacted so fast that our Huey snapped off the ground. My adrenaline seemed to power the ship as I nosed over hard to get moving fast. I veered to the right of the deadly quiet lead ship, still sitting there. The door gunners fired continuously out both sides. The tracers coming at me now seemed as thick as raindrops. How could they miss? As a boy, I made a game of dodging raindrops in the summer showers. I always got hit eventually. But not this time. I slipped over the treetops and stayed low for cover, accelerating. I veered left and right fast, dodging, confounding, as Leese had taught me, and when I was far enough away, I swooped up and away from the nightmare. My mind came back, and so did the sound.
“What happened to Yellow Three?” a voice said. It was still on the ground.
The radios had gone wild. I finally noticed Farris’s voice saying, “Negative, White One. Veer left. Circle back.” Farris had White One lead the rest of the company into an orbit a couple of miles away. Yellow One and Yellow Three were still in the LZ.
I looked down at the two ships sitting quietly on the ground. Their rotors were turning lazily as their turbines idled. The machines didn’t care, only the delicate protoplasm inside them cared. Bodies littered the clearing, but some of the thirty grunts we had brought in were still alive. They had made it to cover at the edge of the clearing.
Farris had his hands full. He had twelve more ships to get in and unloaded. Then the pilot of Yellow Three called. He was still alive, but he thought his partner was dead. His crew chief and gunner looked dead, too. He could still fly.
Two gunships immediately dove down to escort him out, machine guns blazing. It was a wonderful sight to see from a distance.
Only Yellow One remained on the ground. She sat, radios quiet, still running. There was room behind her to bring in the rest of the assault.
A grunt who found himself still alive got to a radio. He said that he and a few others could keep some cover fire going for the second wave.
Minutes later, the second group of three ships was on its way in, and Farris told me to return to the staging area. I flew back a couple of miles to a big field, where I landed and picked up another load of wild-eyed boys.
They also growled and yelled. This was more than just the result of training. They were motivated. We all thought that this was the big push that might end it all. By the time I made a second landing to the LZ, the enemy machine guns were silent. This load would at least live past the landing.
Somebody finally shut down Yellow One’s turbine when we left. Nobody in the crew could.
(Excerpt from Chickenhawk. Copyright (©) 1983 by Robert Mason. Reprinted by permission of Knox Burger Associates, Ltd.)
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.”
The Cobra was a tremendous improvement over Huey gunships, but to exploit the Cobra’s strengths—speed and more armament—teamwork was the most effective approach, Stayton says. “When we did a battalion-level combat assault, we could provide optimal protection with four C-model [gunships], two on each side, with M-model [gunships] behind and to the side and Cobras at 1,500 to 3,000 feet overhead. The Cobras could use their diving capability to pinpoint and snuff out any fire. ”
Early in the Vietnam War, when comparatively few troops were on the ground, wounded soldiers were usually evacuated by the same assault helicopters that brought them to the battlefield. But as troop strength increased and the conflict escalated, this space-available method proved inadequate. In response, the Army began to train pilots and crewmen in basic emergency medicine and trauma management and assign them to fly rescue missions in unarmed helicopters marked with red crosses. “Pilots learned to give shots, about saline solutions for wounds, and about burns and the basic elements of first aid,” says Dustoff pilot Michael Novosel. The radio call sign “Dustoff”—randomly selected from a code book, became the universal call sign in Vietnam for helicopters flying medical evacuations.
Dustoff pilots in Vietnam benefited from an unusual pilot in their midst. At the age of 44, Novosel was at least 20 years older than most of his peers, and at five foot four, considerably shorter. He had flown B-29s in the Pacific during the final days of World War II, and was serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve when he tried to return to active duty to train pilots Stateside. The Air Force refused him, saying he was both too old and too senior, so he tried the Army. The Army sent him to Vietnam to fly Dustoffs. Novosel became a warrant officer like most other Army helicopter pilots, a rank that meant he’d have to salute even a lowly second lieutenant. “I just wanted to help out,” he says. “I certainly didn’t think that I’d be in combat.” Because of his total flying time—greater than twice the combined time of every pilot in his unit—he was perfect for teaching instrument-flying procedures needed for missions flown at night or in bad weather, and was in a unique position to shape doctrine for the entire Dustoff community. “There was no flight training designed specifically to help Dustoff pilots,” he says. As more pilots looked to Novosel for guidance and training, he became widely known throughout Vietnam for his skills. “Some units had better training than others,” he says. “I became the unofficial instrument pilot trainer toward my first year [in Vietnam].”
All helicopter flying in Vietnam was risky, but Dustoff flying was the most dangerous of all: Between 1962 and 1973, 207 medical evacuation crewmen were killed, even though there were never more than 140 dedicated air ambulance helicopters flying at any single period during the war. Despite the hazards, an average American serviceman could expect to be airlifted to a hospital environment less than an hour after being wounded—and fewer than one percent of soldiers who survived 24 hours died.
On October 2, 1969, Novosel was well into his first tour in Vietnam. He was stationed at Binh Thuy, South Vietnam. Late in the afternoon, after having already spent seven hours in the air, he was directed to a casualty pickup 30 minutes away on the Cambodian border. Numerous wounded South Vietnamese troops, left behind by their unit and out of ammunition, were surrounded by the Viet Cong in a swaying sea of elephant grass. There were no aircraft available to provide covering fire for Novosel’s unarmed Huey. All directions came from an orbiting helicopter and Swamp Fox 15, an O-1 Bird Dog observation aircraft flying nearby. Without friendly forces on the ground, the situation was completely out of control—according to the regulations that governed Dustoff missions, Novosel was to leave the area immediately.
Novosel’s crew had heard the report from the circling aircraft but remained silent on the intercom, which Novosel took for a commitment to any decision he made. He pushed the Huey’s nose over and swooped toward the ground, aiming for where the spotter aircraft reported sighting a downed soldier.
Automatic weapons fire opened up from all directions, and the soldier was nowhere to be seen under the fans of elephant grass now flattened under the rotor wash. Novosel quickly climbed out of danger. After another unsuccessful attempt, he began to fly race-track circles just above the tops of the grass. Finally, a Vietnamese soldier stood and waved a shirt.
Crewmen Herbert Heinold and Joe Horvath quickly grabbed the soldier and pulled him into the Huey. Soon, other figures began to rise from the grass and were quickly hauled aboard. Novosel had to climb above the gunfire many times, only to dive toward the ground again to resume his search. Within minutes, the Huey held 10 soldiers. Novosel flew to a nearby special forces camp at Moc Hoa to deliver the wounded and refuel. Then he went back.
The remaining troops now eagerly waved their arms to attract Novosel’s Huey, including one soldier who ran toward the helicopter while holding his intestines against his body. Others were cut down by Viet Cong machine guns as they rose. Novosel’s Huey, riddled with holes, continued to fly. On his third trip, he got air cover from Air Force F-100s and Army AH-1 Cobras, and after rescuing nine more soldiers, Novosel prepared to depart until a 10th soldier rose from the grass, barely visible in the failing light. Novosel positioned his Huey so the most intense fire was coming from the rear and backed the helicopter toward the soldier while his crew lay on the deck. Horvath hauled the man aboard, and as Novosel prepared to gain forward speed and jerk the Huey into a climb, a Viet Cong soldier rose from the grass and emptied a clip from his AK-47 into the cockpit. The helicopter careened across the grass until copilot Tyrone Chamberlain could gain control and climb the helo into the sky. Incredibly, neither pilot was seriously injured, but shrapnel from the bullets tore into Novosel’s leg. After offloading the wounded, Novosel and his crew returned to their base. That day, they had spent 11 hours in the air.
In 1970, safely back in the United States and assigned as a pilot for the Army’s Golden Knights parachute demonstration team, Novosel answered a phone call from a Pentagon major who began the conversation by asking him to sit down. Novosel was to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions on that terrible afternoon three years before. Novosel and his crew had saved 29 men from certain death—a mere fraction of the 5,589 wounded soldiers he had evacuated during two tours in Vietnam.
Today, nearly 30 years after the Huey’s introduction, crews still fly the venerable old choppers, but the airframes are tired and are being replaced by newer types like the UH-60 Blackhawk. While the Marines have plans to upgrade their comparatively small Huey fleet with a four-blade rotor system, new T700 engines, new avionics, and an auxiliary power unit, the UH-1 has almost disappeared from the active Army inventory, although it still flies in the reserve and national guard. “But us old Huey pilots have a saying,” says Jeff Stayton. “ ‘When the last Blackhawk goes to the boneyard, there’ll be a Huey crew there to pick them up.’ But don’t get me wrong. The Blackhawk is a superb helicopter. But there’s just a soft spot for the Huey. I mean, look at it—the UH-1 has been flying for 40 years. It’s the DC-3 of the helicopter world.”
The legacy is clear—no longer just a hauler of beans and bullets, helicopters have firmly taken their place on the battlefield, led by a simple and redoubtable standard bearer that could do it all.