Iconic, dependable, reliable, tough, a workhorse, an air cavalryman’s steed.
All were used to describe the UH-1 Iroquois, affectionately known as the “Huey,” during its retirement ceremony, Aug. 18, at Robert Grey Army Airfield, Texas, when the 21st Cavalry Brigade (Air Combat) conducted a ceremonial airlift with the final three UH-1s remaining in the active-duty Army.
At the end of August, 21st Cav. Bde. Commander Col. Neil Hersey said those Hueys will be flown to, and retired with Army Aviation and Missile Life Cycle Management Command, AMCOM, which is headquartered at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.
Hersey called the UH-1’s retirement bittersweet.
“It’s an honor to be a part of the ceremony that sends them off appropriately,” he said. “It’s sad because this platform has meant so much to this unit over the years and to the Army as a whole. It really made the helicopter, in Army aviation, the important aspect of Army aviation that it is.”
CWO5 Jimmy Green, III Corps standardization pilot, said this ceremony was about putting these machine and the veterans who flew them up on a pedestal.
“We’ve taken those Hueys to a lot of static displays around Texas and different veterans memorials, and a lot of those guys, their lives were changed by this machine,” Green said. “They were saved by it, they were hauled out by medevac (medical evacuation), they were lifted in as troops, and brought out of hot fire. There are a lot of guys who get really emotional with this machine.”
During a reception held later in the evening, Aug. 18, the guest speaker was retired Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk, a former III Corps and Fort Hood commanding general. During Vietnam, Funk was an Air Cavalry Troop commander in 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division.
Funk reiterated the Huey’s iconic status.
“It’s an emotional event for all of us here,” he said. “It’s a sad day, but it’s an important one for all of us who are represented by that bird.”
“These are extremely brave people flying these birds,” Funk continued. “Even the Marine pilots would say that if I go down, send me an Army aviator, because they’ll come and get me.”
Funk described the young soldiers who flew the UH-1s as being brave beyond all reason, especially during the many risky medevac missions.
“I turned 30 over there, and I was one of the oldest in the troop,” he said. “So here you are with these 19-year-old kids, and they’re flying these airplanes and they’re taking these great infantry. And our kids never got the credit for the fighters they were, for how tough they were.”
During the ceremonial airlift, the three Hueys provided veterans a trip down memory lane, ushering back thoughts of both good times and bad, as they took short flights across the hilly Central Texas landscape.
“That reminded of Vietnam for the five years I was over there,” said Tony Blas, who served with Company B, 1st “Garryowen” Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cav. Div. in Vietnam from 1968-1972. “The five years I was over there, we lost a lot of men over there, some friends. It’s very hard to forget.”
Despite a 38-year gap between rides aboard a Huey, Blas said one thing about it remains unmistakable.
“I can still remember the sound,” he said. “When you hear that blade, you know it’s a Huey, you know it’s a UH-1.”
Fellow Vietnam veteran Jesus Perez, who served with the 571st Transportation Detachment (Aircraft Maintenance) in support of the Utility Tactical Transport Helicopter Company, or UTT, also has fond memories of that distinctive Huey sound.
“Where I live in Copperas Cove (Texas), they go over my house a lot, and it makes me feel really good,” Perez said.
“The distinctive ‘whop-whop’ sound is one that only a Huey makes,” Hersey added, “to the point where if you watch any movie, even that shows Apaches or Black Hawks flying, the soundtrack they use for the rotor sound is still the Huey.”
After months in the jungle on the battlefield, that sound often meant a safe escape for an infantryman like Blas.
“We used that aircraft a lot to transfer, to take us out of our mission,” Blas said. “When you’re out for 120 days, sometimes four months, sometimes six months, I remember waiting for them at the LZ (landing zone), and when you see them, you’d get very happy.”
On some occasions, a UH-1’s flight in and out of the jungle wasn’t so smooth. As Vietnam veteran J.B. West, a pilot in 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry Regiment, recalled, he made many missions in the Huey and even was shot down once.
“I was making an emergency medevac, and they shot the engine oil line out, and the engine quit and down I came,” West said.
Green, the chief III Corps pilot, described the UH-1 as an old farm truck in that it just works.
“And it’s GI proof. You can’t tear it up,” he said. “And if there’s a place to land and the engine fails on a Huey and you ding the Huey up, then you screwed up. It’s very forgiving. If you don’t have to put it in the trees, a good pilot should be able to get it on the ground without a scratch.”
West said that as he landed the UH-1 after the engine had quit, he didn’t even bend the skids.
“The pucker factor goes up when the engine quits,” he said. “The stress level goes up a little bit, and it gets awful quite when you get to about 300 feet and the engine quits.”
Afterward, he said all of the Soldiers in the Huey got out, set up a perimeter, and waited for about an hour for help to arrive.
As the final active-duty Army unit with a Huey says good-bye to the aircraft, Hersey noted the UH-1’s incredible longevity.
“It’s equipment that has served the Army for roughly 57 years,” he said. “I doubt that any piece of military machinery has seen such longevity, with the possible exception of the B-52.”
“It’s the Cadillac of helicopters,” Perez said.
After returning from his airlift, Perez said he had a great time.
“I never thought I’d get the chance to do it again,” he said. “I can’t wait to get home and call my brother.”
Blas said the airlift brought back the memory of all that were lost during Vietnam.
“Almost 59,000 soldiers who died,” he said. “We were over there to fight for this country. Like they say, ‘All gave some. Some gave all.’ Those are the 59,000 who died over there. It kind of shocks you every time you’re reminded of that.”
Funk summarized the close connection the soldiers had with the Huey.
“Sort of like the cavalryman and his horse, you can’t separate the air cavalryman, the aviator, from his steed,” he said, “and in those days that was the UH-1.”