When we hung up from that first call with Dave Barron at Light Horse Legacy in which he offered to donate Huey 733 to us, we began to dream about a day where it was actually displayed here in the EAA Aviation Museum and what that might look like. As the aircraft came together and the exhibit blossomed into a wonderful home for this old combat aircraft, the one thing we knew would be next to impossible was getting the weapons systems back on the aircraft.
Our Huey was a gunship in the 121st AHC Vikings. Without the guns and rocket pods, the aircraft would just be missing something. However, we pushed ahead and knew that we finally had a wonderful example of the Huey to display in our Eagle Hangar. It flew three tours in Vietnam and would be a wonderful artifact to represent and call honor to those who served in that conflict. Those missing weapons, which are next to impossible to find, would have to wait, and if the stars someday aligned maybe we would find a way to get them or make replicas. Rocket tubes are easy enough, but the armament and interior equipment such as the rocket sight would most likely never happen. Little did we know that this was going to happen sooner than we thought.
Pat Rodgers had worked with Dave Barron before on 733, and when he saw it in the museum, he knew he wanted to help. “It just wouldn’t be correct without those weapons, and I just happen to have everything needed to complete it the way it looked over there,” Pat said.
Pat stepped forward and worked with the museum team to ship three giant crates full of gear to the museum ahead of his visit. Every time a “Pat Crate” would arrive, EAA Aviation Museum Curator Ben Page, EAA Director of Museum and Education Ron Connolly, and I would crack it open like kids on Christmas morning. One of the things in that first crate? That rocket sight which we never thought we’d have a chance at acquiring.
Pat arrived in time to start working on Veterans Day. Our museum was admitting veterans in free of charge that day, and the stage was set for a powerful reunion. As we were working on the Huey in plain sight in the exhibit, veterans would walk up to share their stories of flying in them. One gentleman asked if he could feel the floor in the rear cabin. As he put his hands on it he mentioned that he would have nightmares when he got home from Vietnam about being wounded on the floor in the back of a Huey. “Putting my hands on this and feeling it helps,” he told us. He later had the chance to sit in his old seat and hang his feet out over the troop bay, just as he did in the 1960s.
While installing the weapon mounts some persuasion was sometimes needed in the form of a hammer. One veteran was standing near the aircraft while this hammering was going on. I apologized for the noise and he laughed. “I was in maintenance on the Huey. This noise brings back a lot of memories.”
Our last visitor for the day was a gentleman who flew Dustoff or medical evacuation flights. He mentioned that “I flew the first night of the Tet Offensive. I didn’t know what was going on. I saw action for 14 hours straight that day.” By the end of the war, he would receive credit for saving a total of 1,200 lives in the course of his service.
These men who came out to visit us that day were hometown heroes. Right in our own community. And the reason for their impromptu reunion that day was because of this aircraft and the new mission it is carrying out.
By the end of the week we had all of the aircraft on display, complete with weapons and interior personal effects. I sent them to the crew. The first comment I got back is one that will always stick with me. Simply put: “It looks like we shut it down and walked away from it.”
That meant the world to hear. What makes this aircraft truly special is that so many talented people came together to save it. These people could have easily asked for payment, but instead donated their time, skills, materials, and most importantly, devotion to this project. I will forever be grateful for being a small part of it.
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