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“Lord I pray for the eyes of an eagle, the heart of a lion, and the balls of a combat helicopter pilot.”- Fighter Pilot’s Prayer
Wars are often marked by the machines used to fight them. The First Great War gave the world the iconic biplane, introducing humanity to the reality of combat above the earth. World War II introduced the tank’s symbolic steel, forever changing the way battle is waged on land. The sight of these machines evoke images of the terror and thoughts of the cost that accompany their conflicts, forever reminding humanity of the price of victory. However, scarce in history is the battlefield construct that becomes synonymous with its crusade; its silhouette a vision of the struggle itself. A vehicle’s whose appearance is an immediate tell to the nature of its presence and an indicator of all that was lost. That rare power belongs to the UH-1 Huey.
The Bell UH-1 Huey, officially named the Iroquois, began its life as an answer to the United States Army’s 1952 requirement for a medical evacuation and utility helicopter. Originally designated the HU-1 (hence the “Huey” nickname, which remains commonplace to this day. Its designation was formally switched to the UH-1 in 1962), the Huey was the first turbine powered helicopter to enter service for the U.S. military. Due to that unique power source, the Huey was more advanced, more nimble and more powerful than any of the older, piston powered helicopters the Army had in service at that time, suiting it perfectly for the versatile needs of America’s armed forces. The Huey made its official debut on the battlefields of Vietnam in March of 1962, where it rapidly earned its place in the pantheon of great American machines of war.
The Huey’s greatest strength was its adaptability. During its service in the Vietnam War, UH-1s were purposed with tasks ranging from air assault to armed escort and from troop transport to search and rescue. The Huey’s flexibility resulted in a multitude of different variants of the aircraft in service at any given time. UH-1s specializing in ground attack were fitted with rocket launchers, TOW missiles and grenade launchers in addition to twin, door mounted M60 7.62 caliber machine guns. This heavy array of weaponry earned them the nickname “hogs” for their bristling firepower. “Slicks,” Hueys used for troop transport or MEDEVAC, were unarmed, spare for the two M60s, in order to reduce the weight of the aircraft to maximize troop carrying functions. In addition to those variations of armaments, a wealth of weapons were tested aboard UH-1 Huey gunships at some point in the war. These weapons include Vulcan Cannons, the XM3 high capacity missile launcher and 20 MM cannons. As long as the UH-1 was capable of remaining airborne, the Army was willing to equip them with anything it had available.
Vietnam was a war America fought from the sky. Since the forces of the Viet-Cong and the North Vietnamese Army lacked any form of air force, the United States achieved total air superiority just by entering the conflict. This dominance of the atmosphere allowed the United States to drop over 7,000,000 tons of ordinance on Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian soil, more than double the total bombs dropped in Europe and Asia in World War II. Despite this overwhelming air power and the lack of fixed wing aircraft losses that correspond to it, there existed a major danger for UH-1 aircraft and their crew when inserting soldiers into “Hot LZs,” creating a much less safe environment for helicopter crews. Over the course of the Vietnam War, over 7,000 UH-1 Hueys served time in theater, 3,300 of which were destroyed, costing 1,074 pilots and 1,103 crew members their lives in the line of fire. The lions share of these losses were a result of evacuating troops from or dropping troops into areas that were highly contested by the enemy. It is impossible to accurately calculate the number of casualties caused by UH-1 Huey gunships or door gunners, however, Army UH-1s totaled 7,531,955 hours of flight hours from December 1966 to the end of 1975, in contest for the most combat flight hours of any craft in history, meaning that an estimate for total casualties inflicted must take the sheer frequency of the Huey’s exposure to battle into account.
The UH-1 Huey was the United States’s response to a new era of warfare. Dependable and strong, it earned its place as the emblematic machine of the Vietnam War. While it will always be associated with one of America’s toughest moments, it marks another evolution in the US’s arsenal. To the fighters of its time, it embodied hope, the iconic thump-thump-thump of its rotor an angelic sound to soldiers outnumbered and outgunned by their enemy. The UH-1 Huey carries the weight of an era upon its back, and is a true testament to the greatness of American Steel..
Image via Shutterstock