Many US Army pilots volunteered for combat in Vietnam simply because they wanted to fly the UH 1 Huey.
The UH-1 evolved from a 1955 US Army competition for a new utility helicopter. The Army employed it in various roles, including that of an armed escort or attack gunship in Vietnam. The initial Army designation was HU-1, which led to the common unofficial nickname of “Huey.”
As explained by Peter E. Davies in his book UH-1 Huey Gunship Vs NVA/VC Forces Vietnam 1962-75, many US Army pilots volunteered for combat simply because they wanted to fly the UH-1. After training, they entered transport or gunship platoons – referred to simply as “slicks” or “guns.” Most would complete at least two combat tours. Flight training was preceded by grueling infantry instruction at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and Fort Polk, Louisiana, where recruits, predominantly volunteers, learned through Basic Combat Training that they were primarily soldiers, with a secondary role as helicopter crew members. Trainees (known as “candidates”) then commenced the nine month long US Army Primary Helicopter School course at Fort Wolters, Texas, where they endured some extremely robust “Preflight” training as potential warrant officers.
Warrant Officer Candidates (WOCs) then progressed to Fort Rucker, Alabama, or, from 1967, Hunter Army Airfield at Fort Stewart, Georgia, for advanced flight training and instrument flight instruction. For the latter, a specially equipped H-13 had optional blanked out external vision. Small, two seat TH-55 Osages were also used.
A Huey pilot later with the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion (AHB) at Pleiku, recalled one student who, flush with success after his first solo, decided to see what it was like in the empty instructor’s seat, but knew he would have to change back to land. “Instead of landing and changing seats he tried to do it in mid air. Those trainers were so small you could lean in them to make the thing turn. As soon as he stepped from the left side to the right, the aircraft tipped. He was not strapped in. He fell right through the rotor blades. That knocked the rotor blades off and the TH-55 went in.”
Successful candidates then progressed to the Contact Phase at Knox Army Heliport, Fort Rucker, for specific training on the UH-1B, C, and D, followed by the Tactics Phase at nearby Lowe Army Helioport, which prepared them for realistic combat conditions. Another Huey pilot explained, “We were expected to perform simulated missions like we were in Vietnam. They gave us classes on what altitudes to fly to avoid certain types of enemy fire – small arms or ‘0.51 cal’. They explained the trajectory of the weapons fired from an aircraft, especially when firing in a turn.”
Fort Rucker trained 120 aviators on its gunship aerial weapons course for the UH-1B in 1965. By 1967, 600 pilots were being graduated per month. Although many of them had experience of fixed wing aircraft, very different challenges lay ahead when it came to learning the sophisticated, coordinated control techniques required for rotary wing flying. Helicopters needed far more hands on piloting than fixed wing types. Candidates later tackled the difficult arts of landing in small areas, night, and instrument flying – crucial skills for their operational work in Southeast Asia. Fast “Contour flying” as close to the ground as possible to avoid ground fire was also mastered. Even more demanding was formation flying at night, with navigation lights off, using the glow from the leader’s cockpit instruments for station keeping. In action, gunships sometimes left their lights on for night missions, for according to another Huey pilot, ‘We had a doctrine that we’d rather have the enemy shoot at the gunship than at the lesser armed ‘slicks’.”
In Vietnam, pilots frequently encountered fog and monsoon rain, which severely tested their “blind flying” skills. In UH-1C “gunnies,” a pilot had to master taking off with a 1,000lb overload, persuade the aircraft to hover at an altitude of just three feet, and then dip the nose slightly to achieve forward movement – basically skidding and bouncing along the runway to develop enough speed and lift to rise higher. Occasionally, the gunner and crew chief had to exit temporarily to reduce the weight sufficiently for take off.
As they entered a one year combat tour, many pilots heard the ominous rumor that the average life expectancy of a US Army Aviator helicopter pilot in combat was only 19 minutes. From 1965, around 99 percent of each completed class of students were sent to Vietnam. Most were 19 or 20 years old, with a few experienced “old men” per platoon in their late twenties. There, the “new guys” learned how to apply their recently found skills to combat situations. Refining close formation skills was an immediate requirement, as airborne assaults could involve a tight “gaggle” of up to 40 helicopters, including ten gunships. Tactics such as “pinnacle landing” on top of steep hills, slopes, and karst outcrops amid destabilizing downdraughts to deliver heavy supplies to US Army firebases and outposts while under enemy fire were also tackled.
Experienced pilots with proven records of successful, aggressive combat could be invited to join a platoon in a fire team of one or two gunships operating with a scout helicopter and escorting “slick” assaults. As well as “prepping” an LZ ahead of the “slicks,” gunship pilots could also warn crews flying troop carriers of threat areas, and advise them of enemy guns to avoid as they lifted out of the LZ. The VC knew the points in an assault where the helicopter was most vulnerable, so thorough “prepping” by gunships and strike aircraft was essential. Even then, there could be no guarantee that the “slicks” would be able to land and then depart without being targeted by enemy fire.
UH-1 Huey Gunship Vs NVA/VC Forces Vietnam 1962-75 is published by Osprey and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Army