So says the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation. I don’t know much about helicopters — most general aviation pilots don’t. But these guys are grabbing attention and filling seats at airshows. And I had hardly heard of them before.
What sound? It’s the distinctive “whop-whop-whop” of a two-bladed Huey of Vietnam War fame. Under the moniker SKY SOLDIERS, AAHF has been an airshow hit since 2002-2003. Lifting nine at a time, they offer a unique $50 ten-minute ride, including some fun banking and turning after passengers become acclimated. About 400 to 500 ride during an average airshow weekend; AAHF’s record is 800, they say.
I hitched up with SKY SOLDIERS at Wings Over Flagler in Florida. The 900-member non-profit is based in Hampton, Georgia, outside Atlanta. They’ll do 30-35 shows this year, mostly in the Southeast, but they’ve ranged as far as Fort Worth; Niagara, N.Y., and Homestead AFB outside Miami. Special missions have supported Medal of Honor winners, “The Wall” in Washington, D.C., even a military ceremony in Pierre, S.D. This year, the Dayton and Homestead shows are scheduled. Evansville, Ind., is possible.
Some 65 “core” members are pilots, crew chiefs and show logisticians. AAHF operates four Hueys plus six Cobra gunships sometimes teamed up in Vietnam re-enactments. All are military surplus grants. The pilots are Army and National Guard veterans; many are Vietnam vets.
For me, the attraction was two-fold: A different, very popular airshow draw that’s also an artifact and symbol of the Vietnam War. Why were show-goers lined up three trips deep to fly? Was it curiosity about this 1960s icon? The gee-whiz of helicopters? Or just the opportunity to fly around town for $50? I suspect all three. A $39 airplane ride seemed to go begging.
I approached my ride in this 1969 Huey to see two helmets bouncing up and down in the windshield. Pilot Joe Wade and co-pilot Jim Brennan seemed unbothered; it must be characteristic of an idling Huey, alive on its skids under a slow-turning rotor. Kids, parents and granddads climbed aboard under a crew chief’s care. We were off and eastbound for the nearby coast. The vets aboard reminisced. All enjoyed a panorama of roads, inlets, beaches and an occasional alligator in the backwaters. In my door seat, I struggled not to lose my glasses and lens caps in the rotor wash.
Some 45 years after watching this machine every night on the evening news, I was now flying in one. Long time coming. I recalled the era’s voracious Army Warrant Officer program, many a young man’s ticket into military flying (and the war) without college. I thought of Bill Breese, son of my high school English teacher who asked me for advice about it. I had noted the positives but cautioned that casualties were then running 50%. Young Bill lasted just three days in Vietnam. I’ll never forget.
Back on the ground, crew chief Leon Hobbs of Johnston, S.C., proudly detailed AAHF’s work. They have welcomed Medal of Honor winners, a Tuskegee airman, a World War II Navajo code-talker and escorted a Rolling Thunder motorcycle procession. I cautiously asked his take on The War. His opinion remains his. “But, we did our duty,” he concluded.
And why does he bake in the hot sun at airshows to fly scores of kids, moms, dads and vets? “My love of flying. My love of the helicopter,” he says. I can buy that. These guys and gals have a story to tell, a technology to demonstrate and a history to promote — just as we do in our GA world. You can see it in their faces; they believe in this, big time. I wish ‘em continued success. And I hope you run into them at an airshow soon.
© 2012 Story and Photos Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved.
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