When you enlisted in the US Army shortly before the Vietnam War, what was it that interested you in army aviation?
I enlisted in the Army right out of high school; I was not quite 18 years old. I went in the service because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. My dad was a Sergeant and said that if you don’t know what you want to do, then you need to go spend a few years in the military until you get your head screwed on and figure it out. So I left home, I joined the Army on 11 August 1963, and I never went back. I stayed until I retired 27 and a half years later.
After basic combat training and advanced individual training at Fort Rucker (now known as Fort Novosel), I was assigned to the 11th Air Assault, which was an active division in the process of testing the airmobile concept for the United States Army. I was focused on being a Crew Chief onboard a B-model Huey and that was my introduction into the Army. The 11th Air Assault then became the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and we went to Vietnam in June 1965 – I was at the ripe age of 18 years old.
My aircraft then was a D model, which was assigned to the 2nd Brigade Commander. It was a command and control (CNC) aircraft; not used only for CNC but also for evacuation of troops, for supply, to take ammunition to troops, and to carry the wounded and the dead out of a landing zone (LZ). I had been exposed to an awful lot by the age of 19 years, but it didn’t take me very long to realize that, from sitting in the back of that aircraft, all the action was up front: the pilots are the ones maneuvering the aircraft. When we took the Colonel, we would pick him up early in the morning, fly him and his entourage – which included his S2, S3 and the Sergeant Major – and go out in the area of operation (AO). He would communicate from there or he would land wherever his battalions were. We also took him to his LZ back at home base. From the LZ to the reviewing point took eight minutes and it was eight minutes back, five or six times a day. After about 10 days, I figured out that I could get up in the front left seat because the S3 who occupied it disembarked when the Colonel got off. I asked the pilot, Dan Murphy, if he had any objection to me sitting in there when it was unoccupied. Then, after all those flights, I learned how to fly the aircraft: I learned how to hover the aircraft, pick it up, and set it down – all the things that you would normally learn in flight school. After nine months in country doing that, I applied for flight school and I went to Saigon and took the aptitude test, and got accepted. After I got home, I had a set of orders directing me to go to Fort Wolters, Texas, for flight school training, in March 1967, and I graduated in November.
As well as combat flights, you’ve mentioned that the Bell UH-1 ‘Huey’ was used for troop transport, movement of supplies, and search and rescue (SAR) and recovery. What makes it such a versatile platform for operations?
We became very effective with that aircraft and were able to pick up and carry much more than we would normally at the beginning
There were over 7,000 Hueys in country. The statistics will prove that the aircraft was the best that the American soldier could ask for. There were some setbacks, but they were recognized and the necessary changes and modifications to the aircraft were made in order for it to perform and function better. For instance, in an environment like Vietnam, with tropical and mountainous regions, you needed more powerful engines to get the performance required, so they went from an L9-L9A to L11-11A and then developed to L13-L13A and L13B. So the progression with the engine reflected the development of horsepower that allowed the aircraft to function and operate to the maximum of its capability and, towards the end of the war, with the L13 engines, we became very effective with that aircraft and were able to pick up and carry much more than we would normally at the beginning.
What particular challenges did the Vietnamese geography present for flying missions?
My first tour, I was not a pilot but I was involved in recoveries, supply, taking and removing troops around the field. If an aircraft went down in region with a triple canopy, it was very easily lost and never found again. That was a very common thing, especially over around the Cambodian border, the Laos area, and the mountain areas. The aircraft was limited primarily because of the environmental areas that we operated in and how we operated. If you get up in the mountains, your lift power’s reduced, you have to make adjustments so that you can fulfill the mission.
I was also involved in the Ia Drang Valley conflict: I flew into the LZ and took dead bodies out. That was a very unnerving experience for a kid of 19 years old; you have to become very detached emotionally. You learn to not get very close to anybody because they could be dead the next day, which could be very detrimental to your morale. However, there is a network of camaraderie established with the other pilots.
When I was working in the Mekong Delta, you didn’t have to worry about the jungles unless you got over to the Cambodian border. Most of the area was rivers and we flew the river network. We supported the river ring forces, which was the 9th Division. They go out in their Mike Boats (LCM-8) and they would insert troops, and we would cover them, working very closely with the Navy. Down the delta, you dealt with rice paddies, the river tree lines and the ambushes that were set up. I did a lot of counter-mortar work there. They would mortar the downtown (the base), and we would have to scramble at all hours of the night; we’d go and try to find out where the mortars were coming from and try to take them out. That was our primary mission at nighttime.
At night, we had to do a lot of compass flying as we didn’t have night vision goggles (NVG). In any area of operation, you immediately had to start learning key elements within that area to get adapted to flying it at nighttime as it was like taking off into a bottle of black ink since it was rural with no other light sources. We did have Starlight night vision scopes, but that was at the beginning of the NVG technology, so it was a cumbersome piece of equipment. You could put one eye and look through it and it was like looking through a straw, so I didn’t use it very much; I just used my instincts. I probably flew 65 per cent of my time at night, so you had to adapt very, very quickly.
You eventually became a Standardization Instructor. How did you ensure best practices and safety for pilots in these conditions to stop the number of deaths that were resulting from pilot error?
The kids that were flying were anywhere from the age of 19 to 23 years old. I think the average age in Vietnam at the height of the war was 22 years old. They will tell you in flight school as soon as you get your wings that, in the first 1,500 hours, you’re the most dangerous thing in the sky. And that’s very true because the new, young pilots think they’re bulletproof, and they do stupid things until they get fully exposed to the environment.
As an instructor pilot, one of the primary things that I taught the students or other pilots was autorotations
As an instructor pilot, one of the primary things that I taught the students or other pilots was autorotations. And when I say autorotations, I mean taking it all the way to the ground. We are all aware that an aircraft can kill you in a heartbeat. They stress and stress and stress that. But they also teach you how to survive if the engine quits, if you lose your tail rotor, or if you get a blade shot up. If you lose control, you’re going to end up dying.
The type of flying we were doing was fairly close to the ground. So, if you lost an engine, you were quickly on the ground. And if you understood how to do an autorotation properly, you can walk away from it. I taught fixed pitch tail rotor failures, recovery from a lost gearbox, zero ground autorotations, low-level autorotations, and pop-up autorotations. We also taught people how to, at 80kts, jam your left pedal and turn the aircraft around, to get away quickly. We taught all these as in-country things for survivability purposes. We taught how to survive combat, what to do if the aircraft fails, and how to get out of it.
What prompted you to join the Friends of Army Aviation (FOAA)?
I retired from the military in September 1990. When I walked out of the gate, I walked away from everything, including aviation to a large degree – with the exception that I flew in the Gulf of Mexico, initially flying offshore, which was a different environment, and different type aircraft. Then I went into the trucking business until 2014. In 2013, a good friend of mine who I was stationed with in Hawaii called me and said: “Doc, you need to come up to Ozark. We’ve got a UH-1H up here and you need to come and ride on it.” When I got there, after being away from aircraft as long as I was, all the memories came flooding back and I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. So I joined the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, and I stayed with them until the organization I was part of here – the FOAA – was being revitalized.
Technically, the FOAA started in January 2016 and, at that time, we didn’t have anything except a 10,000sqft hangar that was in disarray. In roughly five years, we restored two UH-1H models to flyable status and have got them under the Living History Flight Experience Exemption program with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). We’ve done almost $1.4 million worth of renovation to our hangar and we started out with next to nothing.
The FOAA aims to inform and educate the public about army aviation with advocacy and displays. Are all the pilots and maintenance crews volunteers?
There are about 650 members but fewer than 30 per cent do the voluntary work. They are the ones that make the organization function. The majority of the pilots are out at Fort Novosel and are currently instructor pilots – a lot of them are Apache and Black Hawk pilots, and all they want to do is fly the Huey because they don’t normally have an opportunity to fly these older aircraft. It’s a different type of flying – without computers or advanced avionics – which they love. I mean, the Huey doesn’t fly itself – and that’s the reason everybody loves to fly it. People come to this organization because of our aircraft. When a new member comes in and wants to pilot it, the first thing they’ve got to do is push the brooms, clean the trash cans and do the grunt work. Eventually, they will process into the cockpit and start flying, but it’s not instantaneous. The aircraft have to be taken care of, they’re our most vital asset. In March 2016, I secured three UH-1H model hulks from the US State Department for a grand total of $100 a piece. Now two are flying and they’re worth about $1.7 million. And we’ve got our third aircraft that we’re starting to restore right now.
What makes restoring and continuing to fly legacy craft rewarding and what hurdles have the FOAA had to overcome to make it a reality?
The first thing you’ve got to have is the airframe itself and then you make a determination of what components you need. The aircraft that I got, each one of them had a transmission and an engine, that’s all; they didn’t have anything else, not even a tail boom, and had been sitting dormant for an extensive period of time. You also have to understand the process of the FAA – what they require you to do and how you go about doing it – which was somewhat of a little bit of a transition for military guys like me. In the past, while serving, we would just tell the maintenance officer that we want a new transmission, he’d go and get it, you didn’t have to worry about it. Well, now, when you have to pay for him out of your pocket, you take a different approach and you look at things a little bit differently. We have to establish priorities of what we need on the aircraft and how we go about getting it.
Our first airframe was fine as we inspected it initially and determined that it was serviceable – no damage to it, the skids were good, and it had less than 5,000 hours on it. When we finally started building the aircraft – after a lawsuit where we received about $120,000 before I got here – we used the initial money to buy a tail boom, the gearboxes and the other items that we needed to make the aircraft flyable. But we were learning through the process, the work-ups, and meeting the FAA requirements. We had to apply for the Living History Flight Experience Exemption program.
We had to apply for the Living History Flight Experience Exemption program
We initially thought that, because we had three engines, we could make two work out of them. So we brought a guy in from California and had him marry the three engines together. When it came time for us to actually roll the aircraft out, the first engine lasted 45 seconds and it blew the number 3–4 bearing pack out of the engine. So we put the second engine in, and the number 1–2 bearing pack let loose. I made the decision right then that we were out of the engine business – I don’t have the people, I don’t have the equipment, I don’t have the special tools, and there’s too much responsibility and too much liability hanging on that engine. So I took the first engine to Ozark Aeroworks in Springfield, Missouri, which is a Lycoming customer center that specializes in Lycoming engines, and they took my engine apart and fixed it up. In the process of the overhaul, I worked a deal with the owner: he continues to maintain the engine, and I pay him x number of dollars per hour on the engine, but if it breaks, he fixes it or replaces whatever is needed.
There is also a Part 135 maintenance facility called Arista, located in Enterprise, Alabama, 20 miles away. If we have a component that we cannot service requiring a depot-level maintenance capability, we take it to them and they can do it for us. But for everything else, we have airframe and powerplant licenses (A&Ps) and we also have an inspection authorization (IA) certification internally, so that our components, if we work on them, are inspected, and anything that goes on our aircraft has an 8130 form – the required documentation for the FAA to demonstrate that the component has been certified. I’m very fortunate in that department.
You’ve mentioned the emotional and mental toll of combat on veterans. Is the mental health of veterans a priority of the work of the FOAA?
The primary mission for the FOAA is to allow the American public the opportunity to participate in an aerial flight on a Vietnam-era UH-1H model. Incorporated within that are two things: the aircraft is considered both a healer and an educator. The healing part comes for those veterans who have not been around an aircraft for over 50-plus years, who were kids when they flew in Vietnam. They’re looking for closure for post-traumatic stress disorder, and they’re looking for the ability to explain to their families what they did in the war and how they did it – that’s what our Huey does. As a Vietnam veteran, when I look at the crowd that’s getting on the aircraft, I can always tell another Vietnam veteran; I can tell the ones that are somewhat apprehensive about getting onboard. The most satisfying feeling that someone in my position can receive is when a soldier, a retired individual, or a veteran and his family get on the aircraft – they talk while we’re doing the 10-minute ride – and he gets off the aircraft, he comes to my door and gives me a salute, and he’s got tears in his eyes. That’s what it’s all about right there. It happens every time. That is what we do, and we do it every time we are presented to the public.
The other side of that is the educational process. Kids as young as 18 months old have flown with us, but it’s the year group from seven to 16 years old that we try to educate with the flights. First of all, it’s a unique experience that they’ll never forget. Secondly, maybe it plants something in the back of that child’s mind that, as they get older and remember it, tells them that that’s what they want to do as a career. It is a potential resource for the aviation element within the military forces – the Navy, Army, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force – all those kids have the ability to take up aviation if that’s what they want and have that desire. And it all stems from a 10-minute ride that we give them.
The FOAA is based in Ozark, Alabama, but often does tours and events across the country. What is coming up for the FOAA and for you in future?
At the start of September, we have a special event scheduled in Iowa. We will visit three locations (Ames, Boone and Carroll) in that time frame, and we will put probably in excess of 3,000 people through the aircraft the 10 days that we’re up there. That event has proven to be one of our most popular and successful events in the past for people wanting to come out, participate and support the organization.
We’re also working with the FAA to get an exemption to allow the Round Canopy Parachuting Team located in Palatka, Florida. They jump with the old World War II round canopies used in Normandy. Hopefully we can get a resolution for that before October.
We have the Stuart Air Show on 10–12 November, a major air show in Stuart, Florida, which will close our season out. We’ll get there on a Friday, fly all day Saturday, fly all day Sunday and come back on Monday. We have been very lucky and fortunate to be a part of that air show and it’s been very good for us – this will be our third year back there.
We also have a good relationship with the command group at Fort Novosel. All the pilots that graduate from there are allowed to bring their families and their loved ones, and come out here and ride on the Huey. That experience is not for the young pilots, but it’s for their families, so their families can understand what they’re doing when they go to their unit, and it provides a basic understanding of the type of flying that the pilots will be doing. That has been probably the most successful program that we have introduced to this organization today.
We are also located right next door to an aviation maintenance school, where we donate five scholarships each year
We are also located right next door to an aviation maintenance school, where we donate five scholarships each year for individuals that rise above and beyond. Not only do we provide them with scholarships, but we also provide them with the ability to come to us and work on a FAA flyable aircraft and get exposure to real-world maintenance. The Director of Maintenance then signs in their logbook that they have been working on an aircraft, which means a lot to the industry when it comes to getting a future job.
Another mission that we do is for our fallen veterans with the Sunset Memorial Funeral Home. Whenever a veteran is processed through the funeral home, we do a flyby for them and the families to show our respect. The crew goes down and salutes the casket and then we go out and crank the Huey.
We also help the Boy Scouts and we have ties with all the local mayors in the area, they support us and we support them. Eventually, when they open up the Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas, we will be a part of that because we have aircraft that are dedicated to Major General Patrick Brady and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael J Novosel Sr, who are both Medal of Honor recipients, represented on the doors of the aircraft for their contributions and their dedication to this country.