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Vietnam helicopter crews visit Hampton's flying museum

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

The roar of the UH-1H "Huey" military helicopter, with the deep thumping sound made by the rapid spinning of its blades, pierced the air over Tara Field in Hampton recently.

Visitors by the hundreds lined up for a ride on the "Huey" and the AH-1F "Cobra" attack helicopters that played major roles in the Vietnam war. The Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, and Flying Museum, invited helicopter crew members, and their families, on Friday, for a reunion of the Vietnam Helicopter Crew Members Association. The overall event was held at a hotel in Atlanta, and the flying museum was one of the reunion attractions.

Vietnam-era helicopter crew members came from all over the United States, and lined up at the edge of an airstrip on one side of Tara Field, and patiently waited to take rides on one of the two helicopters. They paid $450 per person for a 15-minute ride in a "Cobra." A ride of 7-to-10 minutes in a "Huey" was $50 per person.

"You actually get a chance to get back into an aircraft that you were part of for a good portion of your life," said Ralph Carpenter, of Clearwater, Fla., standing in line with his buddies, Gary Mann and Ben Nail.

Carpenter, a member of Alpha Company 229 Assault Helicopter Company, is a repeat visitor to the airfield. The first time he came was in 2003. The best part of strolling the grounds and seeing the aircraft is reminiscing about previous experiences, he said.

"Your life depended on those aircraft, and a whole bunch of other guys," he said. "It's just a good feeling to be back in there, and get the same vibrations, the same ride, and the same smell. It brings back a lot of memories, good and bad."

Mann, of Columbus, Ohio, was a member of the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company, also called "Robin Hood." He said the opportunity to ride a "Huey" was exhilarating after such a long time.

"It's exciting to get back on it after all these years," he said. "I got to ride on an American Huey 369 in Peru, Ind., two years ago, and he [pointing to his buddy, Nail] said he had to wipe the smile off my face when I got off."

Nail said he feels a sense of pride when he sees the military helicopters again. He also is from Columbus, Ohio. He served in the Signal Company during Operation Desert Storm.

Janice McMillan, of St. Louis, Mo., was at the reunion because her brother, Allen Bennett, was a gunner in the U.S. Army 117th Platoon during Vietnam. She said what sparked her interest in visiting the museum was the stories her brother told of his military service. "He's my hero," she said.

Visitors were required to fill out release forms prior to getting in line to fly. They were given seat assignments, and a pre-flight briefing at the loading areas. Several first-time visitors gave every indication they plan to return. Jerry Hamil, of Gainesville, said the museum trip was his first. He is part of the Vietnam Helicopter Crew Members Association. He was with the 128th Assault Helicopter Company. He rode in a "Huey." Settling back in the seat brought back memories, he said. "It was fun, it was a rush, it was going way back, it was far out," said Hamil.

He said he learned of the museum through word of mouth. "It just so happened that the guy that I worked with in Gainesville, he just happened to work here, he was a crew chief in Vietnam, and he told me about it," said Hamil. "Then, they had the reunion down here this year. I figured I'd come and fly with the group."

The reunion also was a first for Vietnam veteran, Ted Alley, of Cooper, Texas. He was a member of the 188th Assault Helicopter Company, also called the "Black Widows." Alley said the opportunity to view vintage military aircraft, touch them, and ride in them, is a valuable learning tool.

"It's great for history," he said. "A lot of people are completely out of touch with whatever happened in Vietnam, and this helicopter was kind of a symbol of Vietnam, and people get a chance to be around them, and actually fly in them."