FORT POLK, La. -- The Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, better known as the "Huey," has been the singular iconic image of Army aircraft since the Vietnam War. Americans have watched this chopper, adorned with red crosses, pick up the wounded from battlefields on the nightly news. They have also seen the aircraft loaded with armaments, aiming a barrage of bullets or other deadly force at its target. The public has seen military personnel jump or rappel from it, and rescuers hoist up stranded victims into it.
When Francis Ford Coppola directed a fleet of Hueys to fly over an ocean horizon at dusk for the film "Apocalypse Now," he had no idea that it would be the most memorable shot in the movie. For many, this was the image of the U.S. Army. Numerous other films and TV shows also used Hueys when they needed to represent an Army presence in the air.
The UH designation stands for "utility helicopter" and the 1 means it is the first of that kind. Bell, the aircraft manufacturer, chose the UH-1 model to be the first helicopter powered by a jet turbine, a new technology back in 1956. Combine that engine with the aircraft's twin-bladed rotor, which, when in forward flight, creates a loud "whomp" as the tip of the advancing blade breaks the speed of sound. The result is a rather noisy helicopter, distinctive in the way it cuts through the air. It has been used for command and control operations, medical evacuations, resupply, troop transport, reconnaissance, search and rescue and hoist operations, supporting arms and assault support and several other tasks. It seemed to have just the right mix of cabin room, lifting capability and airspeed.
More than 50 years after the Huey made its debut in the Army, the aircraft now faces retirement.
Before the Hueys leave Fort Polk for good at the end of August, certain members of the command group felt the aircraft deserved a more fitting send off than to merely decommission and ship them to a collection facility. The result: One final mission for the retiring mechanism "" fly a group of Airborne commanders from Fort Polk over the Geronimo Drop Zone for one more jump.
The jump occurred Aug. 4, which happened to be an excellent day for flying: Sunny skies, nearly no wind, good visibility. Six jumpers exited the aircraft and jumped into Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk history: The last Soldiers to jump from a UH-1 at JRTC.
Keith Morrow, G3 air officer, coordinated the flight. He said he has made several jumps from Hueys himself. "It's sad to see a great helicopter go, and I have always enjoyed jumping out of them, but it is time to move on," he said. "Keeping up with the maintenance as they age is becoming more difficult from year to year."
Morrow said the jump was a great send off for the Huey.
"Instead of just watching them fly off or be driven away on the back of a truck, it's good to see one in action for one last mission before they go," said Morrow.
Two Huey pilots, CW3 Addison Clark and CW4 James Bennett, both of the 5th Aviation Battalion, have their own connection to this iconic aircraft.
"I am a retiree recall," said Bennett. "I started my career right here in 1969, and I was excited to come back to the Army, and Fort Polk, to fly the Huey again," he said. "It was the first aircraft I flew, and now, I am one of the last pilots to fly one."
Clark said he would be happy to fly the Huey for the rest of his career, if that were possible. "I was happy to fly it during flight school because I thought they were (being decommissioned) then, and I wanted the chance before they went away. It is a workhorse -- an honest, heavy-duty aircraft. It's not as technically advanced as the newer helicopters, but I like it. I hate to see it go."
Col. Bill Burleson, incoming Operations Group commander, was one of the jumpers and also called the Huey a workhorse. He said it has been an invaluable partner to the American Soldier.
"It's part of Army history," he said. "It's been used for training as well as during conflict, and has done great work for the Soldiers in our Army."
Brig. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, commanding general, JRTC and Fort Polk, was also one of the jumpers. "This was a good way to see the Huey in action one more time here at the Home of Heroes," said Chinn. "I know many heroes have served aboard her, or been transported by her at some time in their careers. Change is a sign of progress, though, and while the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk is moving ahead in upgrading our aviation fleet, we still want to respectfully recognize the end of the Huey era. This aircraft has served us well."
Another jumper, Command Sgt. Maj. Joe Montour, Operations Group sergeant major, shares the retirement spotlight with the Huey.
"This is the first helicopter I jumped out of, and this is my last jump today," said Montour, who also retires at the end of August. "I have been in 27 years."
The Huey has been in the Army's service for 55 years. It is being replaced by newer aircraft such as the UH-60 Blackhawk and LUH-72 Lakota. But only one helicopter is a UH-1: The first utility helicopter -- the Huey.
Editor's note: Watch for an article about the official retirement ceremony for the Huey in an upcoming edition of the Guardian.