For several weeks the behemoth CH-47 Chinook helicopters have taken center stage at the California Army National Guard armory in south Stockton. And it's no wonder since the eight tandem-rotor helicopters are soon to see action in the Middle East. They, along with crew members, have received Uncle Sam's call to support Operation Enduring Freedom.
While the Chinooks rumble on the tarmac getting ready for battle, five quiet rotary aircrafts known simply as "Huey" sit in the shadows.
They are smaller and less interesting than their larger cousins getting all the glory, but the Hueys, officially known as Bell UH-1 Iroquois, are grizzled veterans of another war: Vietnam.
|The Huey UH-1N at a
- News-Sentinel staff
Huey, a light utility helicopter with a conservative 9,500-pound payload, was used by both the Army and Marines to carry soldiers and equipment into combat zones. And, occasionally the Navy patrolled the Indo China rivers with the Huey.
A versatile design allowed it to perform duties ranging from medical evacuation to air assault.
"They were small enough to do small jobs and big enough to do medium size jobs," said 1st Sgt. Thomas Epperson, a Vietnam veteran who worked aboard Hueys and a current reserve Guardsman.
"It was like having a pick-up (truck) in the air," he added.
But like any other machine, the Hueys have been replaced by something bigger, faster and better. Chinooks, Black Hawks and the more stealthy Cobra helicopters now handle military operations for the Marines and Army, according to Capt. Miguel Torrente, commander for Delta Company, 1st-112th Aviation, the Guard group that flies the Hueys.
"It's a good aircraft. It's a shame to see it go," Torrente said.
The battle-worn Hueys, however, have not altogether retired. They are now used the world-over for training helicopter pilots, and flying personnel and equipment to battle forest fires. Furthermore, law enforcement agencies regularly fly Hueys over communities to combat crime.
In the civilian world, the aluminum-made Huey is scraped of its olive drab paint, converted to a twin engine aircraft and used by corporate world chiefs.
While standing on the Stockton tarmac, Torrente surveys the five Hueys. He said they, too, are destined for such non-military activities, in addition to one or two of the crafts going off to South America to serve foreign aid duty. He is not sure exactly when the helicopters will leave, however.
He points to a 1971 model that is missing a rotor.
"That one probably saw a lot of combat," he laughed.
Several other Hueys formerly operated by Delta have already been shipped by truck to Mather Field in Rancho Cordova to serve in a training capacity for the Guard.
Epperson said the faithful helicopters are an affordable means for training young pilots. He also said the Guard will take parts from one Huey and use it on another.
"They aren't going to spend any more money on the existing Hueys," said Epperson, also a Delta member.
Hueys first arrived in Vietnam in 1963. By the time Saigon fell in 1975, some 5,000 Hueys had served in the conflict making it an emblematic machine of the times. During the war, thousands of soldiers boarded the 57-foot helicopter going from military bases to the remote jungle.
As a vehicle for transporting the injured, the Huey UH-IV carried six stretchers and one medical attendant.
"The medivac pilots were so fearless - and they paid a price," said Epperson, an Oakdale resident.
"But they got the injured out of there."
|California National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Warren
Finch, left, Capt. Miguel M. Torrente, center, and 1st Sgt. Thomas
Epperson talk about Huey helicopters. (Jerry
And, when the Huey wasn't carrying cargo, it shot arsenal including a door-mounted M-60 machine gun, a grenade launcher, rocket pods and wire-guided anti-tank missiles.
"It was really a fortress," Epperson said.
He said the C-model Huey paved the way for the Cobra helicopter, which is still in service today.
Epperson waxed poetic about the Huey's mechanical design.
"It's a forgiving aircraft," he said.
"It's a good aircraft to work on. It doesn't take a lot of special tools."
He added that any soldier who had a modicum of mechanical knowledge was quickly able to grasp the Huey's Pratt and Whitney engine.
The Huey cruises at 80 knots with a top speed of 125 knots. Its single-rotor system makes for a smoother ride over the bigger, twin-rotor Chinook that requires balancing and tracking before leaving the ground, Epperson said.
It has the ability to fly at 14,000 feet, but generally hovers at around 10,000 feet above the ground mostly due to oxygen requirements.
Epperson, 56, said Hueys were reliable and one of the cheapest aircrafts to maintain.
"Probably less than any other helicopter ever," added the 37-year military veteran.
He said the military moved away from the helicopter in favor of twin-engine rotor aircraft and those that could accommodate more bells and whistles.
"That's why they moved on to the Black Hawk," Epperson said of the Huey's successor.
He said the Huey may not have been brawny or intelligent by today's standards, but it was tough.
Of the hundreds of downed Hueys he helped rescue, 90 percent were resuscitated within a few months, Epperson added.
"I once saw a Huey with rounds (bullet holes) from the nose of the aircraft to the tail - and it still flew back to its base safely," Epperson said astonished.
"It took a beating but kept on ticking."
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