Huey and the Vets

Reprinted for Veterans Day in honor of all Veterans, with love and prayers that all the men and women who have given so much to our nation will continue to receive the same kind of appreciation and honor that Liberty Warbirds (formerly Liberty War Birds Association) has shown to veterans of the Vietnam War through the restoration of Huey 823. Including autonomy over their own bodies and freedom from mandatory procedures for all members of the armed forces. And praying for God’s restoration of broken and wounded spirits, symbolized by the restoration of this once-broken and earth-bound helicopter into a once-again flying bird.

(Original version published on The Stream, July 2, 2016. Republished with permission.)

UPDATE: In 2017 the new engine and blades were installed in Huey 823. On June 9, 2018, Huey 823 got to “stretch her rotor blades” for the first time since 1994. And on August 18, 2018, Huey 823 flew for the first time since 1994. Now Huey 823 is on a regular flying schedule!

You can see videos of the Bird and of the missions on which she has been flying now for some five years on the Liberty Warbirds’ Facebook page. The pandemic caused a rude hiccup, but in true soldier fashion, the team at Liberty Warbirds didn’t let the lockdown get them down. Huey 823 got a mask, and so did her bikini-clad mascot. Only the Flying Dragon remained mask-free as “he kept burning a hole through it!” (Photos courtesy of David B. Jones)

Through Huey 823 the Liberty Warbirds are bringing joy and healing to many veterans and bringing education and awareness to the public. For those who would like to support this amazing endeavor, there is information on how to keep up with Huey 823 on the Liberty Warbirds Facebook Page.

It is like the memory of a smell from your mother’s kitchen. The scent takes you back years before. Suddenly, the file cabinet of memories is opened and the chop-chop sound of that bird returns you to a time long lost. (Preston Ingalls, Vietnam combat vet, on Quora)

“What do Vietnam Veterans think of when they hear the distinctive sound of a Huey helicopter?” The question was answered by the veteran above. More formally known as a Bell UH-1 Iroquois, the Huey flew in Vietnam and remained in active Army service until 2005. It was eventually phased out by the UH-60 Black Hawk.

Still after 46 years “like the memory of my mother’s wonderful apple pie cooking, the sound of a helicopter flashes me back every time,” said Ingalls. For Ingalls and other Vietnam veterans, the sound of the Huey is like the sound of home, a welcoming sound. But what if Mr. Ingalls and hundreds of other Vietnam veterans had the opportunity to not just hear a Huey, but to ride in one again? That is the goal of the Liberty Warbirds, a Pennsylvania-based non-profit devoted to acquiring and restoring UH-1 helicopters, building a flying museum to honor all those that served and sacrificed in Vietnam.

As of yet, the Association is not permitted to give rides to veterans. They have petitioned the FAA for a Living History Flight Exemption (LHFE) to enable them to do so. I’m still praying that they receive that clearance so that they can give the veterans one more ride in a Huey.

In May of 2016 I saw this first UH-1 acquired by Liberty Warbirds. Huey 823 flew in Vietnam 1968-70 with C Company of the 101st Aviation Helicopter Battalion and then with the 170th Assault Helicopter Company. It was the star attraction at Army Heritage Days in Carlisle, PA.

My old high school classmate and friend David Jones spends many a weekend working on the Huey in the Liberty Warbirds hangar in Pennsylvania. Jones, an Army veteran who started as a UH-1H crew chief and ended his active service as a Maintenance NCO for a fleet of UH-60A Black Hawks, is the Director of Quality Control at Liberty Warbirds. Jones and his fellow veterans had to do a great deal of restoration work when the group acquired her from a civilian owner in early 2015.

Thankfully, Huey 823 was in good shape. Most parts only need to be brought up to standard and re-certified. The main rotor blades were completely missing, but the group found a compatible set for $40,000. Donations to restore Huey 823 and to maintain her flying capability are accepted at the Liberty Warbirds website.

The nose of Huey 823 was also restored to its former glory. It is bedecked with a fire-breathing dragon and the words “The Flying Dragons,” accompanied by a curvaceous bikini-clad blonde inspired by the 170th A.H.C.’s call sign, “The Bikinis.” In country, pilot Russ Mowry painted this nose art on the helicopters. And it was Mowry who offered to replicate his Vietnam War design on Huey 823.

There is genuine affection for the Huey as a ‘fellow war veteran’ that in the words of Jim Haga, Vietnam veteran pilot and former Association President, “did its job.” The Huey brought troops in and out of combat, delivered supplies and even provided a taste of home. For instance, Thanksgiving Day dinner was delivered to soldiers on UH-1 helicopters.

Not all memories associated with the helicopters are happy ones, obviously. The group realizes the power of the Huey to pull long-stifled memories and emotions to the surface but hopes the experience of releasing them will help heal the pain.

“To see a Huey again is cathartic for the vets,” Jones said. Every encounter with Huey 823 inspires the sharing of war experiences, so the Liberty Warbirds is creating an oral history project to document veterans’ stories. The Association’s Director of Human Resources, Army veteran Alexis Lake, is a trauma therapist who will “make sure that the veterans who visit 823 feel emotionally safe and are not re-traumatized when they visit.” Another Association member and Vietnam-era Navy veteran said that the project will give “closure” to Vietnam veterans and “give them the homecoming they didn’t get after the war.”

What an extraordinary gift it is to Vietnam vets to see Huey 823 fly again. Huey 823 is now doing flybys as well as fly-ins and static displays at various events. Last year she did a flyby mission to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication at Indiantown Gap National Cemetary. In September 2022 she participated in the Community Days airshow at the Lancaster, PA airport and in the Army Heritage Days that had finally resumed after two years’ hiatus, due to the virus, at the Army War College in Carlisle.

The overall mission of the Liberty Warbirds is “Educate, Honor, Restore.” If all goes well, they someday will honor the veterans by providing rides in the restored Huey 823 to some of the very men who, in their younger days, were well acquainted with the sound of its rotors. But just as important is the mission to educate. The Warbirds’ mission statement declares, “Today’s public deserves to understand and learn about the vital impact these aircraft had for our soldiers during the Vietnam War.” And the Vietnam veterans deserve to be honored and understood by today’s public. Wisely, the Warbirds invites young people from various high schools. They teach them about the role of the UH-1 in the war and, even more importantly, about the service and sacrifice of young men that were not much older than they are now.

For those who know — and regret — the way that Vietnam veterans were treated when they came home, supporting Huey 823 is a way to help right those wrongs and help bring healing to those that carry the scars of war. The Huey project will help ensure that their service and sacrifice is always remembered and could be a great model to honor all veterans from every conflict since then.

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