By Johnny Jackson
The veterans who fought and flew missions in Vietnam may still recall the feeling of being lofted into the air by Huey helicopters as ammunition pelted the ground and exploded beneath them.
Now retired or approaching their retirements, many combat veterans of the Vietnam War era are reliving the experience and placing their patriotic pasts into perspective in the process.
The Army Aviation Heritage Foundation (AAHF), a non-profit based at Tara Field in Hampton, Ga., has taken the experience and brought it back to a growing number of appreciative spectators.
Through civilian flight tours and air shows, the foundation has been able to provide those American veterans a voice and vehicle to tell their stories and experiences.
Such re-told experiences are common in the organization's popular Huey Helicopter Rides, said Huey pilots, Cliff McKeithan and Mike Holland, both retired military and Vietnam veterans.
The Huey rides are simulated military operations of sorts, mimicking Huey helicopter movements during war-time flying. The Huey is a military utilities helicopter, capable of transporting about 18 passengers. Through AAHF, it is the only military helicopter allowed to provide civilian rides. Proceeds from the $50-per-person Huey rides go to support the foundation.
AAHF's air shows are re-enactments of Vietnam reconnaissance missions, involving several military aircraft and personnel. The shows are a moving tribute to American troops who experienced the real-life events of that war, according to McKeithan.
"We get a standing ovation every time," said McKeithan, 70. "It's a really arousing ovation. It can bring you to tears."
He said he has had some wives and children of military veterans talk to him about their simulated experiences.
"They'd say, 'We understand now what he did,'" he said. "It's brought a lot of guys out of their shells, too."
McKeithan said that many veterans - before taking part in the rides or air shows - have not put their Vietnam War era experiences behind them. "It's pretty darn good therapy for us guys who fly, too," he added. "Fifteen years ago, I never thought I'd fly a military aircraft again."
AAHF's goals are to take the legacy of the military, its people, and their aircraft to the American public and give Americans an opportunity to meet visible veterans and current military members and live their history of service and patriotism.
The foundation is a blend of military combat veterans and civilian enthusiasts and supporters, with members who have served in combat in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm.
AAHF's stated purpose is to preserve and educate the public about military heritage. Another objective is to connect lesser-known troops' experiences to the public, while inspiring patriotism among them.
That purpose, according to 62-year-old Holland, is how many veterans have come to appreciate the foundation's Huey rides and air shows.
"A guy our age will bring his son, grandson, or granddaughter, and will come and tell us thank you ... that we've given them something they wouldn't otherwise have ever experienced," Holland said.
Holland flies the foundation's Huey helicopter at Huey rides and air shows around the country with nearly eight million people having experienced one or the other.
Schedules for AAHF meetings and upcoming shows can be accessed through the AAHF web site.
On the net:
Army Aviation Heritage Foundation: www.armyav.org