Helicopter rides carry visitors back in history

April 12, 2013

Almost 40 years ago, the Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter was the workhorse of Army aviation during the war in Vietnam—flying troops into and out of battles, evacuating the wounded to field hospitals, and delivering supplies. Today a Huey that saw combat in Vietnam is offering rides at the Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In & Expo, where passengers not only get to see the Sun ’n Fun grounds from the air, but they also get a taste of what infantrymen and Army aviators alike experienced in Vietnam. It is accompanied by a Bell AH-1 Cobra gunship.

Above the flightline the Cobra maneuvers for landing.

The rides are offered by the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit public educational foundation based in the Atlanta area. It is dedicated to presenting the story of Army aviation through flying presentations and static displays of aircraft and equipment. Its primary source of income for restoring, operating, and maintaining its fleet of historic aircraft—currently four UH-1H Hueys, six AH-1F Cobras, and a Cessna O-1D Bird Dog—is through a ride program offered at airshows and similar events. Huey rides last about 10 minutes and are available for a minimum donation of $60, less for veterans and active military; Cobra flights are $475 and run slightly longer.

“We don’t have big sponsors,” said volunteer Rick Welch, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “We have to generate our own revenue. This ride program is 90 percent of that.” The foundation has between 500 and 600 members, with a core of about 75 to 100 who are actively involved in the ride program and other operations. Welch said it takes 15 people to do an average show, plus volunteers to help with loading and unloading, as well as paperwork; last year the foundation did 33 events. The ride program was launched about 10 years ago; the organization also offers a Vietnam reenactment demonstration that combines air assault, an attack, and a rescue operation.

“The guys who are doing this, love it,” Welch said. “These aircraft draw a crowd wherever they go. We’ve never had a dissatisfied customer yet.” Many of the foundation’s members are veterans, but not all. “All of our pilots right now are former military.”

The volunteers most enjoy giving flights to the people who fought in Southeast Asia. “The Vietnam vets—that’s what we’re here for,” Welch said. Many will come out to fly after not seeing or being in a Huey for more than 40 years. Vets will bring their families, or family members will come out after a Vietnam veteran has died. The helicopter flight helps family members to connect with their loved one’s combat experience. “It’s really phenomenal,” he said.

Andrew and Michael Megler have their photo taken after flying in the Huey.

“I think the Huey is the base of the whole organization,” said Leamond Stuart of Stockbridge, Ga., who retired from the Army after more than 32 years of service. “I was an old grunt in Vietnam,” he explained. After serving on the ground as a Pathfinder, he became a door gunner in the Huey; Stuart became an infantry officer and then an Army pilot in 1980, flying Apache gunships—successors to the Cobra—during the first Desert Storm.

Stuart recalled a passenger who had just lost her husband. “She told me he was a dustoff [medevac] pilot in Vietnam. It brought her closure and helped her to understand. That Huey has incredible healing power.”

At one event, Stuart had the privilege of flying a Navajo code talker—one of many Native Americans who used their ancient language to communicate coded messages during World War II—and his family. “Even though he was from a different generation, he related to me as a warrior.” A month later Stuart received a note from the man’s daughter. “She said the experience of flying with us changed his life.”

The Army Aviation Heritage Foundation’s helicopters will be at Sun ’n Fun through April 14. Other events are posted on the organization’s website.

AAHS crew ready the Huey for its next flight as the Cobra approaches for landing.