There are several ways to familiarize yourself with the history of the iconic flying machine of the Vietnam War, the Bell Helicopter Co. UH-1 “Huey.”
You can pick up books and magazines to read about the Huey’s missions flying general support, air assault, cargo transport, aeromedical evacuation, search and rescue, electronic warfare and attack missions during the Vietnam War.
You can watch movies to see dramatizations of the aircraft’s ability to deliver and rescue our forces.
You can read memoirs of veterans telling you what it meant to them, how it saved their lives, why they are thankful Bell produced more than 16,000 worldwide and delivered around 7,000 for service during the Vietnam War.
However, there’s a more complete and substantial way to get the whole story just a short trip from Covington.
“The Huey is the icon of the Vietnam War, what is called the helicopter war,” Army Aviation Heritage Foundation (AAHF) pilot Ron Disney said. “Everything you see relative to Vietnam, you see a Huey helicopter.”
A quick drive to Tara Field in Hampton gets Newton County residents to AAHF living museum. The AAHF is a volunteer organization consisting of veterans who have experience or familiarity with some of the helicopters used by the U.S. Army in past conflicts. Among those are the foundation’s Huey’s and Bell AH-1 Cobras.
Along with the helicopters, several volunteers are eager to show where the troops sat while riding to or from station, where the guns were situated and the gauges the pilots had to keep their eyes on while taking on enemy fire.
The experience isn’t just seeing a cool helicopter. Veterans who had to depend on the Hueys and Cobras in life-or-death situation are eager to share their knowledge and affection for the aircraft.
Veteran George Meeker, currently a senior crew chief in charge of maintenance and training with the AAHF, and a Specialist 5 during Vietnam, is one of those volunteers who wants the story of the Hueys passed on.
Meeker worked on the flying machines as a mechanic during the Vietnam War, making sure they were ready to fly and recovering any fallen aircraft.
Some aircraft were broken down or damaged to the point where they couldn’t be flown back to base, and in those instances Meeker would be required to head out to the jungle. On one such trip he was trying to hook up a downed Huey to a larger Chinook helicopter to be flown back to base, but was left on the ground, alone, in the jungles of Vietnam overnight.
Making it through the night, while keeping an eye on the fallen Huey from the treeline, he said he was relieved the next morning to hear the sound of a rescue Huey coming to pick him up.
That sound has been relayed in movies and books but is better realized, and better explains the helicopter’s history in person.
Meeker sees that history being passed on to the general public that comes through the AAHF’s hangar in Hampton Georgia, or during the airshows the Sky Soldiers perform in throughout the year, as well as the children and grandchildren of veterans who depended on the Hueys.
“We see former veterans that fly with us as they take their family members with them and say ‘this is what it was like for me 45 years ago,’” Meeker said. “’This is the thing that saved my life.’ They teach their young people what it’s like to go through something. They get to have the physical experience.”
The AAHF offers that experience in rides in the Huey and Cobra helicopters, which transforms the educational experience of a crucial piece of aviation history.
The iconic “whop, whop whop” sounds of its rotors that people read Vietnam veterans say was a life-saving beacon and the wind that would have blown on the faces of soldiers heading toward the jungle reach senses not touched in movies and books.
A chance to look down on tree lines without the risk of machine gun fire peaking back, and to bring to life what it was like landing after sweeping the landscape puts you past the political pages of the era and into the heads of the young men who were put in harm’s way, and how the vehicle you are sitting in was key in that history.
“We convey a story of things that happened many years ago and enabled people to live with freedoms and abilities they have to do,” Meeker said.