You can fly on a combat-scarred Vietnam icon

Story highlights

  • The Army Aviation Heritage Foundation restores Vietnam-era helicopters
  • Huey 354 bears scar of combat in Vietnam
  • Copters offer rides at airshows around the country

The Huey helicopter came in from the west, the "pop, pop, pop" of its blades announcing its arrival. It made a sharp right-hand turn and flared to a landing in the grassy area. The ragtag troop of 10 passengers awaiting its arrival looked far from Army issue, dressed in Aloha shirts, T-shirts, blue jeans, shorts and ball caps. They ducked their heads beneath the blades of the spinning rotor as they made their way to the copter from a protected area off to its front.

But Army Special Forces Capt. Homer Haracourt, a four-tour veteran of Vietnam, needed help. He was paralyzed from the waist down, and to make this flight, he'd need the assistance of others.

The Army copter's crew obliged, six of them gathering to lift Haracourt into the outside seat on right side of the chopper, the crew chief strapping him in to the canvas seat so he wouldn't fall out the open door. Haracourt beamed as his helpers retreated. The copter fidgeted a bit as the pilot applied power.

The skids left the ground, and after a short rotation to the right, Huey 354 sped away on one of more than a dozen hops it would fly this day, one of countless such hops it had flown since it was put into service in Vietnam more than 40 years ago.

This is a story of heroes, both mechanical and flesh and blood. None of them will call themselves that, the Huey because, well, it can't. The men who fly it and fly on it this March afternoon because they're way too humble for any bombast. But I'm the witness. I've seen what these guys do, and I'm declaring them heroes.

The flight crew on this March Saturday are from the nonprofit Army Aviation Heritage Foundation in Hampton, Georgia. They volunteer countless hours to restore and maintain Army helicopters from the Vietnam era and then take them to air shows across the country where you can fly on them. Yes, you can fly with heroes.

They are guys like Ralph Kahlan, the pilot of Huey 354, carrying Haracourt this Saturday morning at the Thunder in the Valley airshow in Columbus, Georgia. Kahlan, 65, is the assistant dean of the Georgia State University College of Business these days. But he's a veteran of two tours in Vietnam, first as an infantry officer and then as a Huey pilot. He knows what the Huey meant from above and below.

"It was a love-hate relationship as an infantry officer in Vietnam," he said. They dropped troops into tough spots but were there to get them out.

"Swore at 'em when they left, couldn't wait for them to show up," he said.

That was a lot of swearing and cheering in Vietnam. More than 9,400 Hueys were built, according to the foundation. More than 2,000 flew in the war, in God knows how many missions. Watch any news footage from the time, and you'll probably see the Huey, ferrying troops to and from the field, their door gunners firing away at treelines to protect the GIs. The Huey was there at the end too, making flights from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as it was overrun in 1975.

Huey 354 was in the fight. The aircraft giving rides in Georgia this Saturday in March flew 1,417 combat hours in Vietnam. Ask the Army Av guys, and they'll show you the hole in the floor at the left rear. Patched over now, it's where an enemy round passed through during combat in 1971.

After that damage, Pat Derry probably flew Huey 354. The Rockford, Illinois, native and Army Aviation Heritage Foundation member is a businessman now. In Vietnam, he was the maintenance test pilot for his unit, nicknamed "The Comancheros." That meant before any copter could go on a mission after repairs or servicing, Derry took it up to make sure it worked.

"That's why I knew I flew 354, because I flew every helicopter once every couple of months," he said.

You can see the unit's logo on the front of Huey 354 today.

Derry, who flew under the call sign "Comanchero 2½" in Vietnam, doesn't fly copters these days. But he stopped by the foundation's hangar in suburban Atlanta a while back to reconnect with the Huey.

"I didn't get emotional about sitting in it or anything, but it was just kind of a neat deal," Derry said. "Forty to 45 years later, to be able to sit in something that was that big a deal as part of your life is kind of cool."

Back in Columbus, Haracourt is on the ground after a 10-minute hop in Huey 354. The crew that got him on the aircraft has repeated the procedure, transferring the 75-year-old as gently as possible from helicopter to his motorized wheelchair. But there's a hitch; the chair can't seem to navigate the grassy ground where Kahlan has set down the Huey. The crews will have to carry chair and passenger to the tarmac. There are no complaints from Haracourt.

"I'm not bitter," he said. "I signed up for the Army."

So what did he do in Vietnam? Behind him, his daughter, 56-year-old Rosemary Haracourt, shakes her head.

"I don't talk about that. Never have," the former Army captain said.

What he will tell you is what these Huey rides mean to him: "Everything!"

And that means if you come to Columbus next March, you could fly with this hero.

"The good Lord willing, I'll be back next year; yes, I will," he said.