Air(show) Assault

With a Caribou, Mohawk, Bird Dog, Hueys, and Cobras, Army aviators are teaching the loudest history lesson you ever heard.

BOB SCHRADER ARRIVED IN SAIGON ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, 1963, aboard a de Havilland CV-2B Caribou, tail number 62-4149. He was the assistant crew chief on the aircraft, a 19-year-old Army private first class who had come to think of the ’Bou, as Army crewmen referred to the type, as his airplane.

"Everybody always has an airplane they like,” says Schrader. “For me it was -149.” But he lost track of it—heard it had crashed—during the year he served in Vietnam. In the 40 years since, he has spoken only rarely about the airplane or his wartime experiences, though they have occupied his thoughts. “They were my stories,” says Schrader, a retired construction manager who lives in North Dakota, 54 miles from the South Dakota farm where he grew up. “They didn’t really have anything to do with my wife or my family. Most people have one closet in their bedroom at home. I’ve got two—my closet and my Vietnam closet."

Three years ago, Schrader found something on the Internet that made him open the door to his Vietnam closet and sort through some of the memories stored there. On the Web site of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, a group that performs reenactments of Army aerial combat, he saw a photograph of a CV-2B Caribou. Its tail number was 62-4149. “All these years, I thought it had crashed,” he says. “It was kind of emotional, really.” Schrader has a strong Fargo accent and a kind manner, and only a few minutes into a conversation with him, you’re thinking “Nice guy.” So you’re happy to hear that he was re-united with -149—in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where members of the foundation were showing it off at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s 2000 fly-in event. “Once I discovered the airplane was around, well, I had to become part of it again,” he says. Schrader now travels from Kindred, North Dakota, to Atlanta, Georgia, five times a year to help keep -149 in the air. It’s the only Caribou still flying in the Western hemisphere and one of 22 aircraft in the fleet of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation.

More than 800 veterans have joined the organization since its creation in 1997, many of them finding, as Schrader did, a connection to a past that has been difficult for them to assimilate into the present. But the veterans in the 1,000-member organization form only part of the group intended to benefit from it, according to its 54-year-old founder, Mike Brady, an airline entrepreneur, commercially rated fixed- and rotary-wing pilot, and Army veteran. Brady’s father, a retired major general and chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, was a combat crewman on Navy aircraft in World War II and flew Army helicopters during two tours in Vietnam. In April 1997, Brady had built his fourth airline, Northwest Airlink, into a regional powerhouse, with 2,000 employees and 70 aircraft carrying 1.9 million people annually in 22 states. He was weeks from finalizing its sale to Northwest Airlines (a very lucrative deal for him, as it turned out) and was casting about for his next project. He wanted to do something altruistic, he says, something significant. “I grew up around Army aviation,” says Brady, “and I wanted to be an Army aviator but couldn’t” for medical reasons. Inspired by a TV news segment about an Army sergeant who visited classrooms to explain what serving his country had meant to him, Brady decided on a goal: to teach the country about Army aviation and “to re-connect the American soldier,” in his words, to the American people. “The military is an oddity to a lot of people,” Brady says. “They don’t know, for example, that the Army flies aircraft. When I ask them, they say, ‘Oh, you mean the air corps of World War II. Aren’t they part of the Air Force today?’ ”

Brady’s educational program draws on marketing acumen developed during 30 years in the airline business. The airshow act he created is dazzling and loud. “You’ve got to grab your audience,” he says. He estimates the cumulative audience of the foundation’s 62 appearances at seven million.

Last May the audience at an airshow in Fort Rucker, Alabama, stayed through a rain delay of about an hour then braved threatening skies to watch foundation volunteers simulate a typical airborne cavalry attack as it would have happened during the Vietnam War. Their demonstration begins with a pass by the foundation’s Grumman OV-1B Mohawk reconnaissance airplane, the only OV-1B still flying. With a triple tail, twin turboprops mounted atop the wings, and ogle-y observation windows nearly encasing the cockpit, the Mohawk is an attention-getter on its own (see “The Last of the Mohawks,” Feb./Mar 1997). But the next aircraft on the field is even more entertaining: a Hughes (later McDonnell Douglas) OH-6 Cayuse scout helicopter used to find enemy positions. At some shows the little tadpole-like OH-6, a light observation helicopter, or “Loach,” as its crews called it, teams up with a Bell AH-1G Cobra attack helicopter in the hunter-killer combination that prowled Vietnam. The Loach dips and climbs and turns; it skitters across the field looking for hidden gun emplacements. It pulls up and maneuvers to escape them. In contrast to the Loach’s constant, nervous activity, the hovering Cobra looks even more menacing than it otherwise would. Dark, lean, and aloof, it lurks in the distance, waiting for the Loach to find it a target.

As the Loach yo-yos around the edges of the airfield, two Hueys, door guns blazing, fly to the center and land. The troops they carry leap onto the field and search for cover in what the audience is to believe is a hot landing zone. When the Hueys depart, the Cobra charges in with its de-fanged 7.62-mm mini-gun spitting fire and rocket tubes puffing streams of smoke. It pretends to attack reenactors portraying Vietnamese guerrilla fighters. Explosions rip across the airfield, where earlier the pyrotechnics crew had planted small charges, and spew sod into the air.

“This is pretty much how it went every day while I was over there,” says Dick Teipel, a foundation member who flew Caribous between 1964 and 1967 and went back to Vietnam as a Huey pilot in 1968. “They’ve got it down just the way it was.”

Of course the way it was evolved a good deal. As the U.S. military relied more and more on helicopters for a number of combat missions, aircraft manufacturers invented new types to offer improved performance. When the United States began military support of South Vietnam, the Kennedy administration sent maintenance-heavy, underpowered, piston-engine helicopters, like the Marines’ Sikorsky UH-34 Choctaw (see “Dog of War,” June/July 2001) and the Army’s 86-foot-long Vertol CH-21 Shawnee (also known as the Flying Banana) to transport troops and cargo. But simplicity was on its way in the form of the much more powerful, turbine-driven Bell UH-1, which the Army christened Iroquois, a name all but lost after a nickname emerged from the aircraft’s original designation, HU-1, for “helicopter, utility”: Huey. By the end of the war, more than 5,000 Hueys had served in Vietnam, as troop transports, medevac craft, and gunships (see “Huey,” Apr./May 2000).

The foundation has eight UH-1H Hueys and operates three of them at a time at airshows, offering rides at $40 a seat. Seeing—and hearing—the helicopters return to pick up another load of 10 eager customers is reminiscent of watching Hueys carry troops on the nightly news in the late ’60s—until the passengers hop out, grinning and high-fiving one another, and wave gratefully to the pilots. Jack McCormick, a 767 captain with Delta Air Lines, flew Hueys with the Army’s 229th Aviation Battalion and flies them for the foundation today. “It had been 28 years since I last took a Huey into a hover,” McCormick says of the checkout flight he was required to make in order to fly the helicopter at airshows. “I didn’t know what to expect. But I was always told that the reason the Huey was so well respected—loved, even—was because it was easy to fly.

“I slid right in there, strapped up, and it was just as I remembered it,” says McCormick. “I never had a problem.”

The Huey was easy for a 19-year-old to fly, but it was vulnerable to ground fire. The Army lost more than 1,200 to hostile fire during Vietnam. So, at first with field modifications and later with weapons added at the factory, Hueys were equipped to shoot back. Marine and Army units bolted 7.62-mm M60 machine guns and rocket pods to factory-built frames, which they then attached to the helicopters’ airframes. The gunships accompanied “slicks”—transports that weren’t loaded down with armament—to suppress ground fire as the slicks carried soldiers into the fight.

Sighting the rockets and guns on a Huey was a low-tech affair. A collapsible ring-and-ball gunsight was mounted in front of the pilot.

“It wasn’t technology at its highest, that’s for sure,” recalls Ron Osborne, who flew Huey gunships during a 1966-67 tour in Vietnam, then returned to lead the first Marine Corps Cobra squadron—HMC-369—in 1972. Today he works as a software engineer for the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, California.

He recalls: “There would be a grease mark on the bubble in front of the sight, and some guys would just slap chewing gum up on the Plexiglas bubble in front of them.”

Weighted down with bulky guns, rockets, and eventually grenade launchers—as well as the frame on which the guns and rockets were mounted—Huey gunships were unable to keep up with the improved UH-1H transports that began appearing in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.

The Huey’s inventors at Bell Helicopter were the first to see that a dedicated attack helicopter was the answer to the problem. To save development time, Bell engineers used the engine, transmission, rotors, and some avionics of the UH-1C but reconfigured the airframe, squeezing the 100-inch-wide chassis of a Huey into a 38-inch-wide attack helicopter by transforming the cockpit seating from side-by-side to tandem, with the gunner in front. What would become the AH-1G HueyCobra went from drawing board to flying prototype in less than a year.

Brady smiles at the mention of the Cobra and acknowledges that the two flown by the foundation are the stars of the show. “Mostly, it’s what people come to see, but I like to think they get exposed to a larger part of Army aviation through our shows,” he says. “[The Cobra] certainly has a great profile,” Brady continues. You look at it and know there’s danger in the sky. Something’s going to happen.”

“It’s the sports car of helicopters,” says Ron Osborne. “The Huey was your dad’s Ford wagon and the Cobra was like a souped-up drag racer. There’s no question that I would fly the Cobra all day long if I could.”

Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Peyton DeHart, a Cobra pilot, flies the foundation’s TAH-1P at five or six airshows a year. He’d heard from friends that there was an organization maintaining and flying Hueys and Cobras at airshows, and at first he was skeptical. “I know what it takes to keep a Cobra running, and I’d heard that the organization was going to fly a couple of them and some Hueys on volunteer maintenance and donated parts. I didn’t think that could be true,” he says. “So I came out here”—to the foundation’s three hangars at Tara Field, 15 miles south of Atlanta—“and found out for myself.” DeHart says when he saw that licensed airframe-and-powerplant mechanics were doing the work, he decided to join.

A Cobra veteran of Desert Storm, DeHart learned first-hand that the helicopter’s slim profile gave it an advantage: It’s hard to see and hard to hit. “You can run an attack profile and come almost straight down on top of an enemy’s head,” he says. “They never have time to know what’s hit them.

“Clearly you can’t stay over the target forever, but the speed, the slim profile, and the Cobra’s ability to carry such a mix of weapons are its strengths. That’s why the Marine Corps still flies them today.”

Today Marine Cobras carry either Hellfire or TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) missiles, but the foundation’s AH-1G is configured as it would have been in Vietnam, except that its weapons are demilitarized—modified to make them unfireable. Two rocket pods for firing 2.75-mm folding-fin aerial rockets are mounted under each stubby wing, and in the turret beneath its nose are a 40-mm grenade launcher and 7.62-mm machine gun. The TAH-1P, a 1977 cold war model, carries the same rocket pods and an M197 20-mm cannon in its nose. The Cobras may be the showboats of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, but the Huey is the workhorse, just as it was in Vietnam. The group’s three flying models not only perform and give rides but also ferry members between airshows and the foundation headquarters in Georgia.

“For every hour of flight, the Hueys require four hours of maintenance,” says John Woodward, the foundation’s executive director, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and Cobra pilot who also directs the foundation’s maintenance program—“the glue that holds it all together,” according to Mike Brady. The Cobras, he says, require a ratio of about six to one, and those five helicopters account for only half of the foundation’s maintenance and inspection responsibilities. At any one time, Woodward and his band of volunteers keep a dozen aircraft flying. Besides the Hueys, the Cobras, and the Loach, the fleet includes a Piper L-4 Grasshopper, which was delivered to the Army as a liaison aircraft in February 1943; a Korean War-era OH-23D medevac helicopter, made more famous by the type’s appearance on the television series “M*A*S*H” than by its war service; a Cessna L-19 Bird Dog, used for forward air control; two Beech twin-engine military trainers; the Mohawk OV-1B; and Bob Schrader’s Caribou.

“So far in the three years we’ve been going to airshows, we have always been able to get all the aircraft there and put on a show with all the aircraft,” says Woodward. “And that has a lot to do with the level of experience of the people here.”

The hangars at Tara Field start filling up with volunteers around 5 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, at the end of the real-job day, and on Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. Woodward says there are 30 to 45 volunteers living in the area who show up for work regularly. The privilege of attending an airshow—of flying an aircraft there or staffing the static displays to talk to the many visitors—is earned by spending hours at the hangars, working on aircraft, canvassing suppliers for needed parts, sweeping the floor, or answering the phone. A typical airshow performance lasts about 40 minutes and requires days of preparation: Volunteers ready the pyrotechnics, test navigation systems, and conduct dress rehearsals at Tara Field.

“Like any human resource operation, it’s a matter of matching skills with desires,” says Woodward. He laughs. “We have some people that I push away from aircraft maintenance.”

Woodward keeps a roster, and any volunteer who builds up 100 hours—“sweat equity,” Mike Brady calls it—earns a ticket to an airshow. Jeff Clark, who as a member of the Georgia Army National Guard had worked on UH-1 Huey helicopters and as a crewman on OV-1 Mohawks, earned the coveted position of door gunner—the view is great—on the Hueys during the Vietnam assault portion of the show. “I was in the Army, and I left for my own reasons, but this is as close to having that brotherly camaraderie as you’ll ever find anywhere,” says Clark. “You don’t have all the politics and the personalities with this group.”

Dick Teipel says, “It’s just like being in a military unit. The leadership structure is there, and everybody has a job.”

Last year, three volunteers each accumulated more than 700 hours: Ron Disney, a recently retired Federal Aviation Administration controller who flew CH-47 Chinooks in Vietnam; Ron Warner, another former CH-47 Chinook pilot and licensed A&P mechanic, who trains 727 pilots for Delta Air Lines; and Glenn Carr, a retired lieutenant colonel and Army pilot who flew CV-2 Caribous and, he says, just about everything else the Army had to lift men and material off the ground in the 1960s. Carr is known by the guys at Tara Field as “Grumpy” on some days and on others as “Papa ’Bou.”

In the spring of 2002, Carr spent weeks cutting and polishing a plywood floor for the foundation’s Caribou, one of several jobs he undertook to restore the aircraft to its 1962 appearance. He pieced together enormous sheets of plywood to fashion the floor of the Caribou’s spacious cargo section, fitting them like puzzle pieces and cutting complicated, asymmetrical holes to match the placement of tie-down handles.

“He didn’t let anybody get up there on it for the longest time if they had shoes on,” said Dick Teipel. “He didn’t want any scuff marks on it. A lot of time and love went into that floor. Mostly it was hard work.”

The Army used the Caribou as a flying pack mule early in the Vietnam War. A twin-engine hauler built by de Havilland Aircraft Company in Canada, it was valuable because it could land on short—sometimes as short as 1,000 feet—rough landing strips. (In 1966, the Army chiefs, in the continuing effort to control close air support, transferred their CV-2 and the larger de Havilland CV-7 Buffalo transports to the Air Force and agreed to relinquish most of the Army’s fixed-wing aircraft in exchange for the Air Force’s recognition of the Army’s right to operate helicopters for troop movements, fire support, and resupply.)

Besides carrying the foundation’s airshow equipment and supplies, the Caribou has an on-stage part, circling above the crowd during the show, along with the L-19. During an airshow, the ’Bou is brought in low over the field, just a few feet off the ground. When the aircraft crosses show center, the crews will kick out a box, simulating a resupply flight. The exercise shows what the aircraft did on a daily basis almost four decades ago, delivering supplies to U.S. and Vietnamese troops.

On the night before the airshow at Fort Rucker, there’s a lot of chatter in the hangars at Tara Field. Bob Schrader has come down from North Dakota to help get -149 ready for its performance. The Caribou’s nacelles are popped open and Schrader is checking the exhaust pipes to make sure the bolts have all been tightened. He remembers several of the 20-some bullet holes in the aircraft.

“It makes me happy to see that when people get home from Iraq, they get parades and celebrations,” he says. “When we got home, we pretty much got the finger.”

The night Schrader found -149 on the Internet, he had been searching for information about a downed aircraft, the one he had confused with -149. Ten or 15 years earlier, he says, he had researched it in the Fargo library, curious to see if North Dakota newspapers had published anything about it. One newspaper called it “the worst U.S. military air disaster in Vietnam.”

It happened on Monday, May 4, 1964. The night before, Schrader had returned from a “church run,” a Sunday flight that shuttled a chaplain from base to base, and was preparing his airplane for Monday’s mission. “Another chief wanted to switch missions with somebody,” he recalls. So Schrader switched, exchanging his shorter mission for the other man’s longer one, because the other chief had a bad back. (“He was an old man,” says Schrader. “He was 29.”) The airplane that Schrader would have been on crashed 25 miles south of Saigon, killing all on board. It had caught fire just after takeoff. “It wiped out my assistant crew chief. Nine Americans and six Vietnamese,” Schrader says.

“Most people shut their emotions up when they got home and got on with their lives,” he says. “One thing I like about putting on airshows: There’s probably one or two old vets that have their closet doors shut yet.”

“The airplane draws back a memory string that pulls up people and events,” says Woodward. “When they see an airplane at an airshow, they have a tool that allows them to talk to their family, a little bit of a catalyst for people.”

All the foundation members recount the same experience. A man approaches, they watch until he’s ready to talk, and the stories begin.

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