ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Bell Iroquois UH-1 “Huey” helicopter has been called the icon of the Vietnam war.
For veterans of the Southeast Asia conflict, the memories are still vivid. The hard driving rap-rap-rap of its rotors signalled the arrival of troops, supplies, gun support and medical help.
Since 1999, one of those Hueys, the Viking Surprise, has been a major feature at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire.
“I’ve seen men put their hand on the nose of that aircraft and be brought to tears. It brings back memories,” said Richard “Dick” Dickerson, a Vietnam veteran and retired National Guardsman who serves on the board of the David Westphall Veterans Foundation.
The memorial was founded by Dr. Victor Westphall to honor his son, David Westphall, who was killed in Vietnam. It became a state park in 2005.
However, years of exposure to the harsh high-altitude sun, fierce winds and dramatic temperature changes of northern New Mexico have taken their toll on the helicopter.
“An aircraft is meant to be flown and if it’s not flown regularly, you need to maintain it,” said foundation board member Jack Swickard, who was a helicopter pilot with the 118th Army Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.
Thanks to collaborative efforts of the foundation, the State Park, New Mexico Transportation Department and several private sector companies, the Viking Surprise is about to get a facelift.
“This is just a dream come true,” said Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, also a veteran and foundation board member.
Roswell is home to several aviation-related companies at the former Walker Air Force Base, which closed in 1967. Wooley’s contacts with aircraft maintenance specialists AerSale and Dean Baldwin Painting, which paints private, military and commercial aircraft, yielded commitments to refurbish the aircraft for free.
“We are really excited to do this kind of project. As a company, we really stand behind our community,” said Dean Baldwin General Manager David Mantay, a former U.S. Navy pilot.
A Taos company, MTM Crane Services, offered to lift the aircraft off the display stand onto the Transportation Department trailer and on Friday, Oct. 21, the Huey began its journey to Roswell.
Transporting the roughly 60-foot long aircraft over the hairpin turns of Palo Flechado Pass between Angel Fire and Taos was a challenge.
“(We) enlisted one of our most talented drivers to navigate the road,” said Transportation Department spokeswoman Emilee Cantrell.
State Police pitched in to provide an escort as the huge transport vehicle made its way to southeastern New Mexico, stopping for the weekend in Santa Fe.
It arrived with great fanfare on Monday, Oct. 24, escorted through Roswell by local motorcycle riders of the Patriot Guard Riders, an organization that honors veterans. Volunteers from Holloway Construction used a crane to unload it at the AerSale hangar.
Swickard, now 73, got to sit in the pilot’s seat and relive old memories. Based on the aircraft tail number, he realized that it was one of the helicopters he had flown in Vietnam when he was 22 years old.
“Helicopters are more difficult to fly than fixed wing aircraft. Every control move affects all other controls in the cockpit,” Swickard said.
Flying in Vietnam, he said, “Your depth perception became extremely good. You could tell when you were two inches from an object with the rotor blade. You could lower the craft into a hole among tree with only inches clearance.”
Dickerson and other foundation board members will meet with representatives from AerSale and Dean Baldwin in mid-November to discuss repairs they want.
“Corrosion is the worst enemy of aircraft. Any corrosion on the metal they will fix,” Dickerson said, “I think that the consensus will be to take it back to the Vietnam era look. I think we’ll pick a paint that will withstand the weather, that will give the longest life to the exterior.”
Vietnam Memorial State Park Manager Kate German said the State Park doesn’t want any specific unit artwork on the Huey.
“It needs to speak to all veterans and therefore, we want to keep it plain,” German said.
The Viking Surprise, built in 1964, saw service with the Army’s 121st Assault Helicopter Company Soc Trang Tigers and Viking Gunship Platoon and later the 118th AHC Bandit and Thunderbird Platoon in Vietnam.
More recently, the helicopter was used by the New Mexico National Guard for general support, including search and rescue and for combat training.
“It was used for all kinds of missions,” said retired National Guardsmen Robert Barrow and Joe Repichowski, who worked with the Huey from about 1991 to 1999, when it went to Angel Fire.
Dickerson expects there will be a large celebration, likely in spring, when the refurbished Huey returns to Angel Fire.