In the Museum: Smokers Welcome

In the Museum: Smokers Welcome

The three Vietnam vets gathered around the helicopter as it sat on the shop floor. They moved slowly around it, talking and pointing. Two of the men, Jim Palmer and Van Ponder, were intimately familiar with the craft’s plain interior—corrugated aluminum floor, gray quilted-vinyl ceiling, and nylon seats. The two had been U.S. Army crew chiefs who flew aboard the Bell UH-1H Huey from 1967 to 1968 when they were stationed in Phu Loi. On this hot June day at the National Air and Space Museum’s Garber restoration facility in Suitland, Maryland, they had come to share what they knew about the helicopter’s history with fellow vet Michael Cross, the Garber restorer who would be responsible for refurbishing the craft.

“The Huey was the universal symbol for the Vietnam war,” says Cross, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps. “Everyone knew it, and the enemy hated it. But it was a salvation to us. It came and got us.” The enemy, in this case the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army, had reason to hate the Huey. During the war, some 5,000 of the helos buzzed about the country, transporting troops, evacuating the wounded, running reconnaissance missions, and—outfitted as gunships—shooting at the Viet Cong. During four tours of duty in Vietnam, the Museum’s Huey accumulated more than 2,500 combat hours, many of them spent transporting soldiers.

The Museum helicopter, however, had a secret that makes it an extremely rare aircraft. After aeronautics curator Peter Jakab decided to acquire a troop-carrying Huey for the Museum’s Vietnam war collection, he worked with the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, whose members suggested several possibilities. Jakab settled on a helo at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Several months after the helicopter was transported to Garber on a truck, Jakab, in an effort to learn more about the Huey’s past, made contact with Palmer, who informed him that his acquisition had spent two years as a “smoker,” one of only perhaps four such helicopters in the war. As a smoker, or smoke ship, it was the Huey’s responsibility to lay down a cloud of smoke to conceal troops being deployed or extracted from landing zones under heavy fire.

Ponder and Palmer were assigned to the Army’s 11th Combat Aviation Battalion, with Ponder serving until March 1968, at which point Palmer replaced him. In addition to doing the maintenance that kept the smoker in flying condition, each man also flew aboard the helo on every smoke mission as a door gunner. “I think in the Army’s wisdom they say, ‘Well, make the guy who fixes [the helicopter] fly it every time, and that way there’s a good chance it will work,’ ” says Palmer. Each Huey smoke ship had a crew of four: pilot, copilot, crew chief/door gunner, and door gunner. While either Palmer or Ponder would be sitting on one side of the aircraft, manning a pair of M-60 machine guns, his fellow door gunner would be sitting on the opposite side of the craft firing his own M-60s.

“We usually had one mission a day,” says Palmer. “It was early in the morning.” The goal of the carefully timed mission was to drop off U.S. infantry troops into the jungles of South Vietnam for an assault. Before any helicopters landed, however, a U.S. Army artillery unit positioned several miles away fired a 155-mm-cannon barrage on enemy positions. Sometimes, after the artillery fire ceased, a flight of U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantoms would fly over the landing zone to launch rockets or drop bombs in an effort to “kind of clean out the area,” says Palmer. Following closely behind the F-4s, a pair of helicopter gunships would fly through the landing zone, firing as they went.

Finally, it was time for the first flight of troop-carrying helicopters, known as “slicks,” to land. Flying just in front of the slicks was the Huey smoke ship, equipped with a rubber bladder filled with oil. When the oil was pumped into the hot exhaust of the helo’s turbine engine, it produced a plume of white smoke. Behind the cover of the smoke, the first flight of troop-carrying Hueys touched down for two or three seconds while the soldiers hit the ground running. As the next flight of slicks prepared to land, the smoke ship would turn around and fly back through the landing zone only inches from the ground to lay down a fresh plume of smoke, flying a figure-8 pattern until all of the troops had landed.

During these passes through the landing zone, both the crew chief and the door gunner would fire continuously in an effort to prevent the Viet Cong troops from popping up to fire their weapons. “It’s amazing how you can be shooting one [M-60] and unjamming the other one at the same time,” says Ponder. “With all the shooting and the engine running and talking on radios, it’s just a very adrenaline-flowing situation where you really don’t pay any attention except just trying to stay alive.”

Before Ponder and Palmer were reunited with the Huey, the Garber staff had begun making a few repairs. They had already drained the helicopter’s fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluids, using pressurized air to flush out the fumes remaining in the helo’s tanks. During the two-day defuming process, which took place outside the restoration shop, the helo attracted a lot of attention. “We’re in the direct flight path for a lot of helicopters,” Cross says of Garber’s location, which lies between the Pentagon in Virginia and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. “And when they see one of their own on the ground, they tend to take a couple loops. It was like the hovering of the bees.”

For now, the Huey is in storage, awaiting the move to the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia, which is scheduled to open in December 2003. The helo is missing the gun and smoke systems that made it so special, but Cross hopes to restore it to its smoke ship configuration after the move. Palmer and Ponder plan to visit the Huey again when the Hazy center opens. Each man is content that his military flying days are over. “I really enjoyed it when I was there,” says Ponder, “but I certainly wouldn’t want to do it again.”

—Diane Tedeschi

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