Change was in the air in 1956. That was the year Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis ended their long-running double act and Elvis Presley made his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. And believe it or not, a team at IBM invented the hard disc drive. In Fort Worth, Texas, the Bell helicopter company was testing the first military-commissioned chopper with a turbine engine instead of a piston-type model.
This provided a much more advantageous power-to-weight ratio. It was first known as the Bell 204, then the XH-40, but once the U.S. Army took delivery of the first production models, it was designated the HU-1 (helicopter utility), which gave rise to its nom de guerre-Huey. However, the Department of Defense soon re-named it the UH-1. Actually, the full name was UH-1A Iroquois, since the military has a habit of giving its helicopters Native American names, hence the Sioux bubble canopy, the twin-rotor Chinook and the Apache attack chopper. But Huey rolls off the tongue a lot easier. The nickname caught on so well that Bell even put it on the machine's anti-torque pedals.
And the Huey has another aural dimension: that distinctive whump, whump, whump from its thick rotors that has virtually become the soundtrack for every movie about the Vietnam War. Those rotors (which can reach the speed of sound) were first twisted by a Lycoming turboshaft engine with 860 shaft horsepower, although subsequent models had up to 1,400 shp, and then a twin-engine setup (with Pratt & Whitney motors) went into the UH-1N.
The Huey first saw service in Southeast Asia as a medevac (medical evacuation) vehicle, assisting South Vietnamese forces but flown by American crews. That was in 1962, but as the conflict escalated, so did the Huey's role. It also became a troop carrier (known as a "slick") and an aerial assault craft (which became the Cobra). Improvements to the engine and capabilities began as soon as the first batch was produced. Armaments included machine guns, grenade launchers and rockets.
A new form of warcraft was developed with the Huey, known as "air mobility." It would set down troops far behind enemy lines, such as along Viet Cong escape routes, with Huey gunships providing support. But the 'copters were vulnerable to small-arms fire; being a Huey pilot demanded acts of heroism on virtually every mission. Almost 2,500 Hueys were lost in 'Nam out of the 7,013 deployed there, about half of those in combat and the rest from accidents in operation; 2,202 helicopter pilots and 2,704 non-pilot crew members were killed in action (though not all these deaths involved Hueys). Nevertheless, the characteristic rotor noise was a welcome one not just for those who love the smell of napalm in the morning, but also for wounded soldiers. Because 90 percent of American casualties from the conflict were airlifted straight to a medical facility, their chances of survival were much improved by being treated within 60 minutes of the incident, what medics call the Golden Hour.
Rugged and reliable in combat, with space, speed and useful lifting capacities were the qualities that made the Huey an icon. It has gone on to become the most successful military aircraft ever. Over 15,000 examples have been built-more than any other helicopter. Service hours total in excess of 7.5 million, with the greatest amount of combat flight time for any aircraft in the history of warfare. It was even pressed into duty during Desert Storm and is still used today in more than 40 countries. A Huey helped rescue victims of Hurricane Katrina. But the Huey and the Vietnam War will always be linked inextricably. Indeed, the conflict has often been referred to as the Helicopter War. We conclude with the words of one Huey pilot, Charlie Ostick, who wrote on the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association's website: "You can't imagine how good it feels to have a wounded infantryman praising you for getting him out of the fire fight."