By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterOctober 27, 2016
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- An aircraft that some regard as the single most important helicopter in Army Aviation history returned home to be showcased for all to see.
The very first XH-40 prototype helicopter -- a precursor to the UH-1 Huey -- returned to its home at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum Oct. 20 after it was gone from the installation for more than a year in an effort to restore the storied aircraft to its former glory, according to Bob Mitchell, U.S. Army Aviation Museum curator.
While away, the aircraft underwent a restoration and preservation process designed to keep much of the original aircraft together.
"When you do a restoration, a lot of times you have to replace old parts with new parts, and the artifact becomes something that really isn't," said the curator. "The goal was to try and preserve as much of the original artifact as possible."
Mitchell said he wanted to be able to keep the aircraft authentic as possible to be able to preserve its place in history and the significance the aircraft played in shaping Army Aviation. The way the aircraft looks now is very much how it would have looked back when it was in service more than 60 years ago.
"The XH-40 is probably the single most important helicopter in the collection," said Mitchell. "It was the Army's first turbine helicopter and really the turning point for the United States Army and certainly Army Aviation -- this is the helicopter that changed the world."
The XH-40 is so significant because before turbine engine helicopters, the Army had to rely on reciprocating engine helicopters, which were oftentimes unreliable, and prone to vibration and failure, said the curator.
"This aircraft changed everything," he said. "Now we had a reliable power plant, very little vibration, very high thrust-to-weight ratio, and it just changed everything in on the battlefield."
Originally meant to be a medical evacuation aircraft, the Army quickly realized the versatility of the aircraft, which ushered in a new era of rotor-wing flight, said Mitchell.
"When word got back to Congress that this helicopter was so instrumental in saving lives, they appropriated money for research and development for a new medical evacuation helicopter," said Mitchell. "That would be the Huey."
Since its induction into the Army in 1955, the Huey has seen service through the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and recent conflicts, and thousands of UH-1 helicopters are still used in the civilian world today -- along with the Air Force, he said.
After this particular XH-40 was no longer in use, the aircraft found its home at the gate of the installation where it sat for decades as a static display, taking all kinds of punishment -- from Mother Nature and even vandals, said Mitchell.
"We took it down years ago, and put her in storage and that's where it sat for years," he said. "She's had a rough road, but now she's been preserved and in a climate-controlled environment, and will be available for people to observe for decades."
Being able to showcase aircraft like the XH-40 is where the real payoff is, said Mitchell. It gives the aircraft and those who have flown in them a chance to tell their stories.
"We're able to bring this thing in and present it to the world and not only tell its story, but also to have it available for all of those generations who came before us to tell their stories, as well," said the curator. "That's really what we live for. Not only to be able to work with these pieces of history, but to have them available to people for them to enjoy. It's all about the stories."