By CHUCK CANNONSeptember 30, 2008
Nearly 40 years ago, Chief Warrant Officer Lawrence Castagneto was piloting a Huey helicopter across the jungle canopy of Vietnam, avoiding the fire of North Viet Cong soldiers as he airlifted U.S. service members to safety.
On Sept. 10, at Fort Polk Army Airfield, Castagneto, the last Vietnam-era Huey pilot on active duty, piloted his beloved aircraft for the final time, taking the chopper through a traditional farewell spray from a fire truck's water cannon before landing.
"This is an historic moment because it's the last active-duty Vietnam-era aviator flying the icon of the Vietnam War, the Huey," Castagneto told well-wishers after his flight.
Castagneto said he knew from an early age he wanted to fly Hueys.
"The first time I saw her was in 1962 when I was a kid on Okinawa," he said. "I looked at my dad, who was stationed there, and said, 'I'm going to fly those things one day.'
"Here we are 40 years later and I'm still flying them."
To hear the veteran aviator speak about the Huey is like hearing a young man talk about his first girl friend.
"She was my first love, and I love her even more today," he said.
Castagneto said he remembers the day he first got in a Huey.
"It was a day I had looked forward to for a long time and one of the most exciting days of my life," he said. "I couldn't sleep the night before and that girl has the same effect on me today, and probably always will.
"We're like old friends now.
"It's been a long time," he said, tears welling in his eyes, "but it's gone by very fast; I'm going to miss her."
During his career, Castagneto said he's logged more than 9,000 hours of flight in a Huey. He said he vividly remembers one of his Vietnam flights.
"We landed in a rice paddy once, and when we hit the reeds, Viet Cong soldiers came out like the skeleton soldiers in Jason and the Argonauts," he said. "It was hand-to-hand combat in the LZ (landing zone). It was quite interesting for a few minutes. We got hit pretty hard that day."
Castagneto said the flight Sept. 10 was probably his last time to take the controls of an aircraft.
"I probably won't fly again," he said. "When I leave here, I'm going to Fort Rucker, (Ala.), where I'll take over as chief of the Warrant Officer Advanced Course, so my last year will be a staff job. This is probably my last flight in the Army and maybe the last flight in my life. I'm not really planning on flying anymore. I've been flying all of these years. I'm going to retire and sit back and think about what I've done."
As for advice to younger pilots, Castagneto said flying helicopters is a calling.
"It's not a profession you'd choose just because you want to fly," he said. "You've got to love it, because it has its hard times and good times. And you have to take care of each other. There's no red, white and blue, apple pie and Chevrolet in combat; you've got to take care of each other."
Castagneto said he would miss flying, especially in "my girl."
" I didn't think I'd cry like I did when I came in today, but yeah, I'll miss it," he said.
"It's been a long time, I've seen a lot of things, been a lot a places and been through a lot. I'm glad I made the decision 40 years ago to go into Army aviation.
It's a hard, sad day for me today. It's the end of an era. But I'm glad you guys (fellow aviators) are here to pick up the mantle and carry it on. Just remember to take care of each other and the Soldiers on the ground. That's what it's all about.
"And to that grand old lady out there, thanks for the memories; I'm going to miss you."