Vietnam-Era Helicopter Restored to Give One Last Ride to Veterans

By Faith McDonnell Published on July 2, 2016

It is like the memory of a smell from your mother’s kitchen. The scent takes you back years before. Suddenly, the file cabinet of memories is opened and the chop-chop sound of that bird returns you to a time long lost. (Preston Ingalls, Vietnam combat vet, on Quora)

“What do Vietnam Veterans think of when they hear the distinctive sound of a Huey helicopter?” The question was answered by the veteran above. More formally known as a Bell UH-1 Iroquois, the Huey flew in Vietnam and remained in active Army service until 2005. It was eventually phased out by the UH-60 Black Hawk.

Still after 46 years “like the memory of my mother’s wonderful apple pie cooking, the sound of a helicopter flashes me back every time” said Ingalls. For Ingalls and other Vietnam veterans, the sound of the Huey is like the sound of home, a welcoming sound. But what if Mr. Ingalls and hundreds of other Vietnam veterans had the opportunity to not just hear a Huey, but to take one last ride? That is the goal of the Liberty War Bird Association, a Pennsylvania-based non-profit devoted to acquiring and restoring UH-1 helicopters, building a flying museum to honor all those that served and sacrificed in Vietnam.

Huey 823 Vietnam Helicoptor - 900

Last month I saw the first UH-1 acquired by Liberty War Bird. Huey 823 flew in Vietnam 1968-70 with C Company of the 101st Aviation Helicopter Battalion and then with the 170th Assault Helicopter Company. It was the star attraction at Army Heritage Days in Carlisle, PA.

My old high school classmate David Jones spends almost every weekend working on the Huey in the hangar of Dutch Country Helicopters aviation school at Lancaster Airport. Jones, an Army veteran who started as a UH-1H crew chief and ended his active service as a Maintenance NCO for a fleet of UH-60A Black Hawks, is the Director of Quality Control at Liberty War Bird. A great deal of restoration work has already been done on the Huey since the group acquired it from a civilian owner in early 2015, but there is still much to be done before it can fly again.

Huey 823 Vietnam Helicoptor Restoration - 900

Thankfully, Huey 823 was in good shape. Most parts only need to be brought up to standard and re-certified. The main rotor blades were completely missing, but the group found a compatible set for $40,000. They have set up a Go Fund Me page for the blades as well as a general Donation Page for other expenses. For instance, the Huey’s engine was intact, but still needed to be shipped out for upgrading. It will take about $475,000 to finish paying for Huey 823 and complete the restorations on the war bird.

The nose of Huey 823 has also been restored to its former glory. It is bedecked with a fire-breathing dragon and the words “The Flying Dragons,” accompanied by a curvaceous bikini-clad blonde inspired by the 170th A.H.C.’s call sign, “The Bikinis.” In country, pilot Russ Mowry painted this nose art on the helicopters. And it was Mowry who offered to replicate his Vietnam War design on Huey 823.

The sooner the helicopter is in the air, the more veterans will still be able to ride. Liberty War Bird Association Vice President and Navy veteran Michael Caimi says that the Huey is “a magnet for Vietnam veterans” and Jim Haga, Vietnam veteran pilot and Association President revealed, “Every vet that we talk to would like one last ride in a Huey, and we are here to do that for them.”

There is genuine affection for the Huey as a fellow war veteran that in the words of Haga “did its job.” The Huey brought troops in and out of combat, delivered supplies and even provided a taste of home. For instance, Thanksgiving Day dinner was delivered to soldiers on UH-1 helicopters.

Caimi said the Liberty War Bird Association dreams of Thanksgiving Day flights to VA Hospitals to deliver dinner to the veterans once again. They will also fly to VFWs, American Legion posts, and other gatherings to offer rides to vets.

Huey 823 Vietnam Helicoptor Restored - 900

Not all memories associated with the helicopters are happy ones, obviously. The group realizes the power of the Huey to pull long-stifled memories and emotions to the surface, but hopes the experience of releasing them will help heal the pain.

“To see a Huey again is cathartic for the vets,” Jones said. Every encounter with Huey 823 inspires the sharing of war experiences, so the Liberty War Bird Association is creating an oral history project to document veterans’ stories. The Association’s Director of Human Resources, Army veteran Alexis Lake, is a trauma therapist. She will “make sure that the veterans who visit 823 feel emotionally safe and are not re-traumatized when they visit.”Another Association member and Vietnam-era Navy veteran, Larry Wade, has said the project will give “closure” to Vietnam veterans and “give them the homecoming they didn’t get after the war.”

What an extraordinary gift it will be to Vietnam vets for Huey 823 to fly again, providing rides to some of the very men who, in their younger days, were well acquainted with the sound of its rotors. The Liberty War Bird Association has offered their time and energy as a labor of love to the vets. But funds from both individual donors and corporate sponsors are needed to put Huey in the air once more. Funds will also be needed for the jet fuel to keep the helicopter going.

For those who know — and regret — the way that Vietnam veterans were treated when they came home, supporting Huey 823 is a way to help right those wrongs and help bring healing to those that carry the scars of war. The Huey project will help ensure that their service and sacrifice is always remembered.

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