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Vietnam War-era helicopter heading back to the skies

John A Pavoncello
York Dispatch

Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway, well known partly thanks to Mel Gibson's movie "We Were Soldiers," once said to a group of veterans, "I don't know if there's anybody here today that doesn't thrill at the sound of those blades. That familiar whop, whop, whop is the soundtrack of our war."

That sound was the thump of rotor blades of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, aka Huey, that served to transport troops, living and dead, resupply ammo and deliver holiday meals to the field during the Vietnam War.

A group of volunteers based out of the Dutch Country Helicopters hangar at Lancaster Airport hope to restore that sound to the air by bringing an old "war bird" back to flight status.

Huey 823 started its service in the Bell plant, where it was manufactured in 1966. In 1968, the helicopter was deployed to Vietnam, where it served first with C Company, 101st Aviation Battalion, and then with the 170th Assault Helicopter Company. In all, No. 823 flew more than 1,300 combat flight hours and bore plenty of patched bullet holes to attest to its service.

A few years ago, a conversation between a former Navy submariner and a Vietnam veteran helicopter pilot sparked the idea of restoring a Huey to flight status.

"How great would it be if we were able to get a Huey and go flying again?" Liberty War Birds Association founding member and vice president Mike Ciami said to Jim Haga. Haga served in Vietnam as a CW2 helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, flying missions from December 1966 to July 1968.

They started to realize their dream in April 2015, when the association acquired Huey 823 in Fresno, California. The helicopter traveled across the country on a flatbed tractor-trailer to its home at Dutch Country Helicopters.

Since then, a dynamic group of volunteers have worked to restore every inch of the bird to make it airworthy again.

On a recent Saturday work day, about a dozen volunteers gathered at different spots on the air frame. Steve Rosinski, a former crew chief on Hueys during his two tours in Vietnam, traveled to Lancaster from Newark, Delaware, to work on testing and documenting Huey 823's engine mounts. Noel Wenrich of New Holland, also a former Army crew chief, but on newer OH-58 and OH-6 helicopters, worked alongside Rosinski, learning from "the older generation ... to teach the new generation."

Tim McCreadie, an airframe and power plant mechanic from Wrightsville had been laid off from his job and was looking for something to do.

"I thought I'd help out and volunteer," he said as he screwed down the final fastener on a new fuel cell in the helicopter.

In the two years since the association acquired Huey 823, the group has restored the instrument panel and installed a new tail boom. The engine is out for repair and overhaul, and two brand new main fuel tanks and a new paint job are in the works.

"We decided that we are going to wait till the helicopter is flying. Once we get it flying and certified, we will send it out to SureFlight and give them two or three months to get the forward cabin stripped down and painted," Ciami said.

Main rotor blades are the one thing the association is missing.

"We've actually had a lot of tough luck on main rotor blades," Ciami said. Two sets of main rotor blades were donated, but neither set passed inspection, so they are now used for static display.

But the setback hasn't deterred the group.

"We should have our engine back by mid-June, our fuel tanks will be installed by that time, the flight controls will be re-rigged." Ciami said. Once the engine is installed, one of the sets of static display rotors will be installed so the engine can be started and the avionics tested.

All in all, Liberty War Bird Association expects the project will cost about $457,000, and the group is still in need of $200,000 to complete the restoration. Of course, if someone donates a set of airworthy rotor blades, that will save the group $60,000 or more.

Learn more about Huey 823 at libertywarbirds.com.