By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterMay 18, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- From the most seasoned warfighting machines to aircraft that have never seen service, the story of Army Aviation history is on display at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum.
One of those pieces, the VCH-34 Choctaw "Army One" helicopter, tells the story of pilots and presidents who first utilized rotary-wing Aviation for transport, according to Bob Mitchell, U.S. Army Aviation Museum curator.
Army One was the first official presidential helicopter that was put in service to transport President Dwight D. Eisenhower, said Mitchell. The helicopter was originally an H-34 designed by Sikorsky -- devised to meet certain naval anti-submarine doctrine, but the Army quickly became interested in the aircraft as a means of transportation since it was able to carry up to 16 passengers at a time.
By 1958, the Choctaw became the main transport helicopter for the Army and was deployed with units overseas, including in the Vietnam Conflict where it served as a transport and evacuation vehicle.
Before the Army took an interest in the H-34, there was a need for a helicopter to transport the President of the United States, and thus the Army organized the Executive Flight Detachment in 1957 with the purpose of providing then-President Eisenhower with helicopter transportation.
"They're meant to facilitate the transfer of the president and his staff," said Mitchell. "That unit was designated specifically for that aircraft."
The first Army presidential pilot was then-Major William A. Howell, who also went on to become the U.S. Army Aviation Museum's first curator, he added. Another notable pilot well known to Fort Rucker was CW4 William L. Ruf, who now has a street named after him on the installation.
The VHC-34 that sits in the museum today was modified from its original version to accommodate the transportation of the president, which included stripping the interior and outfitting it with carpeting, airplane seating, curtains and air conditioning. Flotation devices were also added in case of an over-water crash, said Mitchell.
The storied aircraft has seen a multitude of passengers from presidents, including Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, to celebrities like Marylyn Monroe, to foreign dignitaries like Nikita Khrushchev, premier for the Soviet Union, and Francisco Franco, former prime minister of Spain.
Mitchell recalled a story told by Ruf about the time he was assigned to pick up Franco from his compound to a summit of European leaders.
"Willie was supposed to fly up there and pick him up and bring him to a meeting," said the curator. "He was told to go up there and land on the soccer field where [Franco] would meet him."
According to the story, Ruf knew where the compound was, but there was some confusion about the exact landing location, aside from the fact that it was to be a soccer field, said Mitchell. Upon approach, Ruf noticed a soccer field inside the compound Franco was staying, and preceded to land.
"As he's sitting there and the aircraft is shutting down to wait, a man runs up to the aircraft waving a pistol, and Willie said he looked out and there was General Franco standing on the steps of the back of the building wearing his riding breeches and a white shirt, drinking a cup of coffee," said the curator. "[Franco] finally gets ready and gets into the helicopter, and Willie takes him to the location."
During the flight, Ruf carried conversations with Franco about the flight and the aircraft to which Franco replied, "You've taught me a very valuable lesson."
The next day, Ruf was instructed to pick up Franco again, but this time he's instructed to go to the soccer field located in town near the compound rather than the one located inside it.
"So, he takes off, and as he's flying over to his destination, he flies past the compound and looks, and overnight they had put in air defenses all around the walls of the compound," said Mitchell. "That's when he realized that was the lesson that Franco was talking about -- that he could be gotten to."
It's stories like Ruf's that make the aircraft in the museum more than just aircraft, but active pieces of history, said the museum curator.
"You find these stories out and then you find they're associated with a particular tail number, then you look at that aircraft and it takes on a new life," he said. "It was just another aircraft in storage before that. They're all like that, but you just have to connect with the people who flew them and had those experiences with them."