Friday, November 11, 2011

One More Mission: 1965 Huey UH-1D drafted into service at Reno

Huey Rescue
By Connie May and Phil Myers
Photo: Courtesy of LiveAirShowTV
      Called to serve- then and now.  The 1965 Huey UH-1D Serial number 65-09961 -  One more mission-not in the hot, humid, jungles of Vietnam amid enemy fire nearly 45 years ago, but in the high desert of northern Nevada on a clear, calm early fall day in 2011. She had seen so much action back during the days of the Vietnam War taking anti-aircraft-small arms fire hits and transporting the wounded.
     On September 16, 2011 she sprang into action, heroically transporting injured to a local medical center after the horrific plane crash that claimed the lives of veteran air race pilot, Jimmy Leeward and ten spectators and injuring 75 others at the National Championship Air Races at Reno-Stead airport in Nevada.
    It was the Unlimited Gold Class Heat (2A) of the air races that afternoon and Leeward was piloting #177 Galloping Ghost. According to the National Transportation and Safety Board a piece fell off the aircraft after Leeward completed several laps and made a steep left turn toward the home pylon and grandstand. The plane banked suddenly left, then right, turned away from the race course and pitched into a steep nose-high climb, the report said. The plane then rolled and plunged nose-first into a box seat area in front of the center of the grandstands.  
     Approximately 200 yards east of the impact the 1965 Huey owned by the 25th Infantry Division, LLC sat on static at the National Aviation Heritage Invitational (NAHI) and quickly moved to aid.   Each year the Invitational hosts a competition for restored vintage, classic, warbird and large aircraft. This was the first year there were two helicopters (the other - a 1970 Bell Cobra) in the static display.       
     The Huey and Cobra were popular attractions at Reno and were visited by many veterans and air racing fans throughout the week. In fact, there was one fan who spoke to Pilot in Command of the Huey, Ray Murphy earlier that day-each would meet again in what many called what looked like a war zone when Murphy and his crew of angels flew the man and three others to Renown Medical Center in Reno.
    On that Friday afternoon the Huey, the most identifiable symbol of the Vietnam War epitomized the goals of the NAHI mission- to bring restored, original aircraft in flying condition to Reno. This 45 year old rotary wing aircraft and her crew showed she still had what it takes to conduct medavac operations.     
     Immediately after the crash a sheriff approached the helo display and asked for help. The owners and ground support crew started putting on the ground handling wheels and with help of the Cobra crew and others got the 6,000 pound helo ready to wheel out of the static area on to the ramp, get fueled and prepared to go.
Co-pilot Tim Horrell gives his account:
“I was near our helicopter and watched the warbirds take off for their heat. Except for when they pass in front of you, the race is kind of slow, and I was looking at a Navy Douglas A-4 Skyhawk (in the static area) when the Mustang impacted about 200 yards away. I looked up not knowing what had happened and saw the debris field spreading across the ramp. I didn't realize it had impacted in a populated area and I stayed in our area as most people did. I could smell 100 octane a few minutes later. None of us knew how extensive it was. After about a few minutes or so, the owners and our ground support crew started putting on the ground handling wheels and getting the bird ready to wheel out of the display area. I thought, you got to be kidding, what the hell we are going to do?
      When someone said mass casualties, I understood. And as I understand it, an event official had requested us. The aircraft was rolled out of the display area, fuel added, two jump seats removed, and the bench seats folded up.  We (Chief Pilot Ray Murphy) cranked up and hovered over to just outside the debris field. Two stretcher cases and two ambulatory patients were loaded. During this time we're trying to figure out where we are going to land with these people. Ray and I don't know where the hospitals are or which one we're supposed to go to (turned out to be Renown Hospital). A guy who assisted loading the patients ended up behind our seats and said he knew where to go, so we took him along.
      While we sat with rotors turning, waiting for the patients to be loaded, a medical A-Star helicopter landed next to us. We departed first and headed for Reno.  Ray was handling the radios and I was flying.  Pretty soon the A-Star is passing us on the right, so I kept him in sight and followed him to Renown. 
     He took the helipad so we landed in a park next to the hospital.  I'm seated and Ray is outside the aircraft in a VHPA T-shirt assisting the patients.  We hauled back to Stead expecting to fly another load, but were told that's it.   We shut down and the aircraft was rolled back inside the static display area. 
I always wanted one more mission!”
     One of the critically injured, who had earlier visited the Huey and Cobra static display, suffered a hit by debris on the back of his head and one of his Achilles tendons was cut. His calf was shredded and his shoulder separated.  
     Co-owner of the Huey, Christopher Miller was able to get a hold of the injured man by telephone after he had been released from the hospital. “The man said that just 30 minutes before the crash he had been in our area talking to Ray,” Miller said.  “He returned to the box seats area and when the plane was coming down he started to run…the next thing he knew he comes to, on a stretcher, and he can’t believe he is being loaded onto the Huey and he sees Ray’s face.”
      All four of the injured survived and Murphy has since heard from two of them, including the man who had visited him at the static display.  The man was able to phone Murphy to personally thank him. One of the others got in touch with him via email.  “That meant so much to me,” Murphy said. “We’re glad we were there to help.”
     The Huey has seen a lot of action in her life. In 2006 pilot Tim Horrell came across her and had her restored to the 25th Infantry Division colors. “This particular Huey has combat history and both she and I served with 25th Infantry Division out of Cu Chi, South Vietnam,” he said. “Although not at the same time.” 
     “It didn't take long to decide that this would be a neat tribute to the 25th Infantry Division,” he said. I'd had enough of seeing 1st Cav markings on this and that aircraft, so move over 1st Cav. and let the 25th Infantry in.”
      The 25th Infantry Division stood between Saigon and Cambodia, and was a large division in which many a member could identify with.
     The deal was made with the helicopter company and after eight months of restoration, in which the aircraft was completely stripped and disassembled, Horrell took delivery in the spring of 2007.  The Huey is basically 50's technology, simple to work on, and maintenance support is available.  “Amazingly, after 40 plus years there are still plenty of parts available, although quite expensive,” he said.         
      “In country, there were many add-ons, or equipment that was slipped in, or attached, to enhance the mission. After Vietnam there were some modifications to Army UH-1H's, such as wire strike kits, two antenna mounts on the nose, painting the cockpit black, and adding some small exterior lights for its new night vision role.”
     Horrell says except for some slight changes, this aircraft now looks as it did in 1969.
     Two VHF radios and a new transponder have been added to the center console. The original radios remain. A white VHF antenna was added to the top of the aircraft, and an ELT was added so that it can fly in today's world. The nose mounted pitot tube was recently relocated to the roof. Except for Dustoff, every Huey had M-60's or greater.  
     “Flying the Huey in Vietnam with a crew of four was exciting and dangerous, as one can imagine,” said Horrell.
     “Thinking back, things sometimes seem larger than they really were (during Vietnam).”          
     This Huey,  now based out of Buchanan Airfield in Concord, California also served in Korea, the Georgia National Guard, and a had post military life with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department, South Carolina.
               In 2010, Horrell sold the Huey to business owners Michael Haus and Christopher Miller of the San Francisco bay area.  
               Today this Vietnam era testament and her crew valiantly honor our veterans who fought so bravely during the tumultuous conflict.  
     The Huey and her crew regularly give rides to veterans; participate in parades, veterans and military events and fundraisers throughout the greater San Francisco/Oakland Bay area.   The Huey’s distinct ‘thumping’ sound can be heard when she performs flyovers.  The 25th Infantry Division, LLC is a nonprofit corporation operated also for the purpose of providing education and visual materials about the history of the 25th Infantry Division and the vital part it played in the Vietnam era helicopter units.
     The individuals and at 25th Infantry Division, LLC are a steadfast example of American patriotism with firm dedication to our nation’s past and present armed forces.
     “Ray Murphy is dedicated on a daily basis with our mission; he gives of his time and skills tirelessly and mentors our young co-pilots as well,” said Miller.   “Ray retired after putting in his twenty in the Army then went on to a career in the FAA for another 25 years or so.  He has been an active aviator for all of those years and his breadth of knowledge and experience is impressive, not to mention he is just a cool guy and we love him dearly.  Ray is the man!”
     All the crew shares a bond and certainly what they did on September 16, 2011 was bigger than life and cultivated their bond even more.
     There were many acts of courage that day in September as the community and aviation family came together as one to help brothers and sisters in need.
     The actions of the 25th Infantry Division Huey were just one of many acts of valor on that dark day and there is no doubt their quick response and decisiveness saved lives.     

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