When it comes to the process of aging, there's no way to reverse it; whether for a person or a weapon system. Recent years have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of helicopters in the Army's UH-1 Huey fleet, as the elderly air frames have reached the limit of their useful military lives.
Late last year a shipment of six weary and battered Hueys arrived at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., for use as targets in Hellfire and Star Streak aerial missile tests. According to test director Rick Douglas, each Huey was destined to end its life as a target mounted atop a telephone pole.
"We call that a 'helo on a stick,'"; smiled Douglas. "We don't know anything about the history of each aircraft when they get here; they're just pieces of metal to us. It's one thing to shoot at a standard three-by-three wooden target, but another to shoot at an actual representative threat target."
Well over 200 helicopter flight tests take place at the proving ground each year. Yuma Proving Ground's aircraft armament range is the most highly instrumented helicopter test range in the Department of Defense. Also, the variety of terrain and the clear flying weather prove attractive to test customers, both within the nation and among NATO allies overseas.
But something unusual came up regarding one of the six Hueys. Chuck Rollins, safety officer for missile systems at Fort Bliss, Texas, had spent the last five years intensively searching for the aircraft he had been crew chief on during the Vietnam War. He finally found it when it arrived at the proving ground in 1999.
"I was in six campaigns aboard that helo in Vietnam during 1967 and 1968," he said. "We were in a series of battles, with this aircraft involved in two minor crashes and one major one."
Rollins explained that this particular Huey was a 40mm gunship during the war. It had a 40-mm rapid fire gun mounted in its nose, with two M-60 machine guns on each side and rocket pods. The aircraft was a dedicated gun platform which wasn't used to ferry troops. This was the standard helicopter gunship until the specially-designed Cobra was introduced.
"Enemy ground fire caused the two minor crashes we were in," explained Rollins. "The crash that resulted in major damage occurred when our engine went out on a trial run after maintenance. We tried to restart it, but couldn't." The result was heavy damage and a major maintenance rebuild.
In the years since Vietnam, the aircraft went through several overhauls. Both Rollins and Douglas estimate that it last flew as part of the National Guard in the mid-1990's. Since then, it has been stripped of its valuable parts and several of its body panels are missing. The aircraft had definitely reached the closing stages of its life.
Douglas and Rollins communicated with each other by e-mail, with Rollins finally traveling to Yuma Proving Ground in late May, 2000. He traveled at his own expense, going part of the way by air and renting a car for the last leg.
"Rick Douglas had sent me some photos by e-mail, so I knew the condition of the aircraft, but physically seeing it was emotional for me," said Rollins. "The helicopter is almost dead, but not quite. This represents the conclusion of a long search, so I'll now be able to report this as a 'mission-accomplished.' "
Rollins crawled through the aircraft, searching for battle damage that had been repaired. Most was no longer visible, but he could see a few patches remaining from its service in Vietnam.
"We once took a hard hit on the left rear door, but the door had since been replaced. I was even hit in the leg once by shrapnel that came up through the floor."
While he was inspecting the aircraft, Rollins was able to remove a few souvenirs to take with him from his old crew chief position. These included a bit of upholstery, intercom switches he once used, and a floor pedal switch.
"I could tell he was excited to see his old Huey," said Douglas. "The condition of the helo was bound to be disheartening to him, though. But we're going to keep from firing on this particular Huey as long as we can. Who knows, maybe it can even be saved. Vietnam vets need to stick together."
One story Douglas related occurred aboard the aircraft after Rollins left Vietnam. The crew chief who replaced him was awarded the medal of honor when he gave his life to remove a burning white phosphorous flare that had gone off in the crew compartment. He saved the lives of everyone else on board, but died from the resulting third degree burns and the noxious fumes he ingested. The blinding flare was hot enough to melt metal and would have caused the aircraft to go down in flames.