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The Last Huey

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On a cool January day in 2006, I walked onto the street from a hotel in downtown Bangkok and nearly swooned from a visceral sense of deju vu. For a moment, I was back in Saigon circa 1970. It was the smell that did it—a pungent cocktail of two-cycle exhaust, fermented gutter water and street refuse—the unmistakable olfactory presence of an Asian city.

If smell is a memory nudge, sound is a sledgehammer and for a Vietnam veteran, none is more powerful than the distinctive rotor slap of a Bell UH-1 helicopter. Heard fading in from the distance, it was the war's constant soundtrack and only a Huey's unmistakable wop-wop-wop brings the memories flooding back. For some vets, they are not necessarily always good, for even distant memories are still alloyed with fear.

Earlier this month, reader Ed Story sent me an announcement from the Helicopter Association International announcing the final retirement from active U.S. Army duty of the UH-1 in October. Ed was an infantry officer in the Delta in 1969 and in seeing this announcement, I suspect he felt what I felt and what all veterans probably do: A profound sense of respect tinged with sadness.

As a military aircraft, the UH-1 was unique for its wide use and its direct contact with virtually everyone in Vietnam. Sure, everyone knew about B-52s and F-4s, but we actually climbed into and flew around in Hueys. In my part of Vietnam, they were just as often called Slicks as Hueys. The origin of the term may be two-fold. Before the AH-1 Cobra appeared in 1967, UH-1s had been fitted with side-mounted guns—improvised gunships. Those without guns were "slick-sided" or just Slicks. The Marine origin of the term may refer to the UH-1's ability to fly without the internal seat frame arrangement, just a "slick deck." Either way, the UH-1 made its mark.

And so did the pilots who flew it. At Fort Bragg, I served under an E-7 who'd been badly wounded and yanked out of an LZ blasted in the jungle by a 500-pound bomb by a UH-1 shot full of holes. In telling this story, his eyes would glaze a little, but one thing he said about the pilots stuck with me: "Those sons of bitches were crazy." He meant that as a supreme compliment and nod of respect and nobody hearing the story would take it any other way.

The last active Army UH-1 was officially retired at Fort Myer, Virginia on October 2, 2009. As is often case, I wonder if "retired" really means retired. I suspect there must be a couple of these aircraft still doing the special duties only they could do in the Army, and other services still use upgraded versions. A friend of mine—a Vietnam Huey pilot—likes to say that when the last Blackhawk is sent to the boneyard, a crew in a Huey will fly them home.

A romantic exaggeration, perhaps, but the UH-1's legacy lives on beyond its active service. The assault helicopter concept came of age during the Vietnam war and as a result, no other nation in the world uses helicopters and the vertical envelopment doctrine they engendered as well as the U.S. military does. That will be the UH-1's lasting legacy and any future helicopter will have a tough time matching it.

Comments (20)

Hueys retired?? I don't think so. They are just changing careers. There are a couple around here used for forest fire suppression. They, like the DC3, Beech 18s, and others, will be hard at it for a long time.

Posted by: Richard Montague | December 15, 2009 10:50 AM    Report this comment

Retired? I don't think so. Just Friday I saw one in USAF livery land on the local hospital. Six approaches and landings, then gone.

Posted by: MIKE HAND | December 16, 2009 2:27 AM    Report this comment

A great helicopter. I flew the UH-1 A, B (gunship RVN), C (gunship RVN), D & H (slicks lots of places), M (U.S.), AH 1 G, Q, S. As I recall the original procurement was managed by USAF for Army as medical helicopter. AF every jealous of roles and missions regretted ever since I suspect. USMC has done great job extending life of UH 1 to future.

Posted by: Paul Hollowell | December 16, 2009 7:00 AM    Report this comment

Paul,

The USMC operates 100+ UH-1Ns and are upgrading to the UH-1Y. The Huey is long from retired.

Posted by: Unknown | December 16, 2009 7:03 AM    Report this comment

Paul,

The headline is a bit misleading. The Helicopter Association International's announcement specifically discussed that the Huey was being retired from U.S. Army service. As Mr. Kirkland and others pointed out, the Huey is still quite active in the USAF and USMC and will be for a long time to come.

V/R, Greg Dungan

Posted by: Unknown | December 16, 2009 7:53 AM    Report this comment

I, Australian army, was blown out of the air in a Huey late '69 by a treetop Claymore triggered by the downwash of the said Huey acting on microswitches as we approached a LZ. A bit busted up (still am) we were rescued by a follow-up Huey that flew in over the same tree figuring it had already gone off. He was under intense fire and took a lot of hits but we made it out. I am alive and for me, the Huey will always be!

Posted by: Unknown | December 16, 2009 8:17 AM    Report this comment

As stated above, the USAF and USMC still actively use the UH-1. Bell is providing the UH-1Y to the Marines as an upgrade and as a new-build aircraft. All of this said, the Vietnam-era 205 based Huey is effectively gone from military service.

Posted by: Unknown | December 16, 2009 8:41 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the point out. I should have said Army. Fixed it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 16, 2009 8:53 AM    Report this comment

Used to be the Australian dealer for the UH-1HP upgrade, which would have seen the HUEY flying for many more hours, sadly it never 'took off'. In the mid 90s the USA gave away hundreds of HUEYs to local and foreign Gov't, I stay in Manila mostly now and I see these gift aircraft almost daily, hearing the rotor sound and looking up to see one flying overhead low level with M60s sticking out the doors, in a tropical city like Manila with all the smells Paul mentioned, realy makes you think of Vietnam sometimes.

Posted by: Unknown | December 16, 2009 9:20 AM    Report this comment

I tried over the past several years to acquire one from the Military Surplus Program for Law Enforcement/Firefighting, but realized in the big picture that it would eat a small agencies budget. Did end up with a couple of it's little sisters, the Bell 206A+. Rarely does an aircraft serve the military for over 50 years with such reverence. The Marine Corp variant flying today still bears the moniker "Huey"...the son of, I guess.

Posted by: Unknown | December 16, 2009 10:03 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the clarification "Army." Just five minutes ago, I saw what looked like the same USAF huey land back on the hospital. In fact, as I type this, I hear him coming back for another approach. Nothing in the world sounds like a Huey. Mike

Posted by: MIKE HAND | December 16, 2009 11:43 AM    Report this comment

We have a Huey come up here to Dahlonega, GA to support the Rangers at Camp Merrill in a MEDEVAC role. I talked to the crew a couple weeks ago and they were going to swap the UH-1's for Eurostars, but that now has been put on hold and they are still flying up here. The unit is based at Ft. Rucker, AL and flies using the call sign "Flat Iron". Love the wop wop still today. I was a 67N20 door gunner/crew chief way back when.

Posted by: Jerry Morris | December 16, 2009 3:09 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for the correction Paul. The Marines just deployued the first nine UH-1Ys to Afghanistan a month or so ago. Seems to be the aircraft of choice for the Marines in that area, new engines, drivetrain and 4 bladed main & tail rotor systems, with a high degree of commonality with the AH-1Z. A glass cockpit and new sensor suite, kind of grandson of the 204/205.

Posted by: Unknown | December 17, 2009 8:32 AM    Report this comment

Paul it the nail on the head: "the sound is a sledgehammer and for a Vietnam veteran" and yes some good memories (when they brought you home) and bad (when they dropped you back in hell) As far as for the pilots, words (and tears) cannot convey the gratitude for those guys; flying tired, wounded, always cranking up when we got "in contact" and flying through hell to pull us out. Some day I will be strong enough to tell the stories. They're the only reason I am here...have one on me (again!)

Posted by: DAVID ST GEORGE | December 21, 2009 6:44 PM    Report this comment

As a former Army Aviator I HATED flying the Huey ! Give me an OH-6 or better yet an AH-6 any day. The slug flew like a 59' Chrysler with power everything. The cyclic felt like if you let go of it that it would just flop over. I hated the stupid force trim crap as well. Flying the Huey was like driving a base model ford f-150 pick up truck. Granted there are lots of pickup truck lovers out there but I sure ain't one. I say good bye and good riddance !

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | December 22, 2009 12:36 PM    Report this comment

I do test flying at Overseas Aircraft Support in Lakeside, AZ where we build the Super Huey for use in Restricted Category. Just this past May we delivered two UH-1H models to the Vietnam Air Force, as they have used up the 200+ Hueys we left behind in 1975. Rumor is the US Army put 50 or more Hueys in storage, "just in case" they might need them in the future.

Posted by: Larry Clark | December 25, 2009 9:21 AM    Report this comment

The Huey is an important milestone in helicopter engineering, being our first mass-produced turbine-powered helicopter. So its retirement from regular Army service is noteworthy. When the last UH-1 is retired from all military and other government service, we should note that date as much as we should have noticed the day when the last Bell Model 47 (our first helicopter to be certified by the Civil Aeronautics Board and the first helo produced in large numbers) was retired from government service.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 5, 2010 1:29 PM    Report this comment

I test flight outside support aircraft in Lakeside, Arizona, on which to build the Super Huey restricted. Only last May, we delivered two UH-1H models of the Air Force in Vietnam, and have used the Huey 200 left behind in 1975. Rumor is the U.S. Army Huey as 50 or more in storage, "in case" you may need them in the future. hotel coral beach ibiza

Posted by: Unknown | December 17, 2010 7:29 AM    Report this comment

Dead post resurrected...I'm not a 'Nam era guy but for those who are, the Huey is still kicking...not in active duty, but with the D.o.D. I"ve been flying them since '91 and still fly them every week at the Yuma Proving Ground. We have 5 left and use them in ways not to be discussed. When the army needed a quick replacement they went with the UH-72A Lakota (originally a BK 117-C2 and now called the EC145 when MBB merged with Eurocopter), twin engines, glass cockpit, autopilot, modern. The thing is it can't do half of what our hueys do! P.S, ~ R. Palma what you say of "my girl" may be true in some respects and I do enjoy the OH/AH-6, but may God strike you down for such BLASPHEMY ;)

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