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Aviation museum welcomes Vietnam vets attending reunion

By Valerie Baldowski

vbaldowski@henryherald.com

Vietnam veterans, from around the country, who were helicopter pilots during the war, are expected to visit a Hampton aviation museum, to check out its collection of aircraft.

The Army Aviation Heritage Foundation and Flying Museum, also known as "Sky Soldiers," will welcome military personnel attending the Vietnam Helicopter Crew Members Association reunion. The visit is scheduled for June 18, at 10 a.m., and the event is open to the public, according to Sgt. Major Shanda Elkins, vice president of operations for the facility.

The museum is located behind the Atlanta Motor Speedway, housed in several hangars at Tara Field, at 506 Speedway Boulevard. "They're doing their reunion in downtown Atlanta, and then, they're coming here, so they can have a ride in a 'Huey' helicopter," said Elkins.

The museum has several AH1F Cobra attack helicopters, as well as UH1H copters, referred to by military personnel as "Hueys." It also has several vintage airplanes, including an L-19, a two-seater nicknamed "Bird Dog."

Anticipated attendance for the reunion is between 210 and 250, Elkins said.

The museum holds reunions periodically, in various locations, she continued. "A lot of Vietnam veterans ... get together as a group, and then they decide when they can have a reunion," said Elkins. "It could be a unit reunion, [or] it could be an association reunion."

Elkins said the events provide veterans a way to reconcile their past experiences, as well as an opportunity to point out the type of aircraft they flew while in the military. "A lot of times it's closure," she said. "They'll bring their wife or their children or their grandchildren, and they can say 'Honey, this is what I flew in, during Vietnam.' Sometimes, the veterans just come and they want to look, and they just want to touch.

"When you're sitting there," she said, "and you're looking at an aircraft that the last time you were in it, it was taking you out, because you were wounded, it has a lot of meaning to it."

Elkins said the museum does more than just hosts reunions. On June 1, she said, the museum did a "flyover" in Fort Benning for the 173rd Army brigade, with a troop of "jumpers." The troops were doing a memorial dedication, she said. "Sometimes we do reunions, sometimes we do flyovers, sometimes we do air shows, we're very versatile," she said. "That's why we call it a flying museum. We can do just a little bit of everything."

The veterans coming in for the June reunion learned about the Hampton museum from others, she said. Elkins gets a number of calls from veterans groups asking to book their reunion specifically with Army Aviation Heritage Foundation and Flying Museum.

"It's kind of word of mouth," she said. "One veterans group tells another veterans group, so then they call me. They tell me what they're looking for, they tell me what the date is, and then, I do my best to work out where we can do [it], whether we're coming to them or they're going to come to us."

Curt Knapp, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran and former pilot, was helping Dan White, the museum's maintenance manager, repair helicopters parked in the hangar, on Wednesday.

Knapp and White are contractors who work at the museum. The "Sky Soldiers" museum is unique from other museums, said Knapp. "The big difference is that we fly, we actually use our artifacts," he said. "We don't have static displays, or things in cases. We take them out to the people."

Knapp said he has observed the reaction when families tour the facility. "The kids like the guns, and the fact that these were used in Vietnam, these were actual aircraft," he said.

The adults, on the other hand, like being able to physically touch the craft, added Knapp.

White was busily repairing a battery tray in a TH-1L copter, using a drill, and spray painting a section of the aircraft. The museum received its "Sky Soldiers" name in honor of the pilots who flew the planes and copters, he said.

"It's a tribute to the army aviators, the aviators of the past ... the crew chiefs, pilots who flew these aircraft in Vietnam, and in the Korean War," he said.

The museum's big draw is the fact that each airplane and helicopter is authentic, added White.

"Basically, with these aircraft, we're keeping in with the exact way that the army wanted to operate these aircraft," he said. "A lot of the older gentleman who are in and out of these aircrafts, who served in the Army, respect that, and they keep coming back."