When Michael Holland walked into the hangar and laid eyes on Huey 823, his eyes brightened. He nodded briefly at the timeworn helicopter and his lip trembled.
“There’s a little wear and tear,” he said, leaning in to touch the metal side of the chopper, resting his fingertips near a ragged line of patched bullet holes.
Holland, 70, of Lobelville, Tennessee, walked slowly around the matte-black helicopter at Lancaster Airport, touching its sides and fixtures, pausing to appreciate the restored nose art, stopping at the door where, a half-century ago, he manned a pair of M60 machine guns on missions during the Vietnam War.
He wiped his eyes before climbing in.
“She’s looking good,” he said. “This brings back memories.”
‘It’s a miracle’
Nearly two dozen volunteers with the Liberty War Bird Association — many of them Vietnam veterans — spent the last few years rebuilding Huey 823 in the Dutch Country Helicopters hangar at Lancaster Airport.
This Saturday, it takes its first official flight at a private event for veterans and supporters.
“To us, it’s a miracle,” Kathy McCullough, who handles War Birds publicity, said Tuesday.
For nearly a decade, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, or Huey, was the most common utility helicopter used in Vietnam, according to the Vietnam Helicopters Museum. It could transport up to 10 soldiers fully loaded, making about 400 miles on a tank of fuel, with a top speed of 120 knots.
Huey 823 was deployed with the 170th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam. In the years since the war, it was used by the Oklahoma National Guard and a technical school in Texas, taking its final flight in 1994.
The War Birds found it in a private collection in California in 2015.
It’s a big bird — 66 feet long, more than 8 feet wide, 14 feet tall from rotors to skids, and tipping the scales at about 9,500 pounds, according to the folks who repaired it — and it’s taken countless hours of manpower to return it to flight-ready status.
The cost of restoration was estimated at $475,000.
Bruce McCullough, commander of Lititz Springs VFW Post 1463, said the rotor blades alone cost more than $100,000 — and they have about 900 hours of flight time remaining before they must be replaced.
The chopper got a new tail, courtesy of a New York state police helicopter, he said. Its engine was rebuilt, its head assembly refurbished, and the fuel system got new tanks and hoses.
It will be repainted soon to its original olive drab, McCullough said.
Even before it was restored, he said, it was providing much-needed closure for veterans.
He noted one Vietnam vet, who was suffering severe post-traumatic stress disorder, opened up to his family about the war for the first time after visiting the Huey in its hangar.
“We’ve already had a lot of emotional reunions,” Wade Hall, quartermaster for Post 1463, said Tuesday.
‘Nerves were shot’
Holland’s emotional connection to Huey 823 is brief, but it sparked a flood of memories from his time in Vietnam.
“I only flew on this one twice,” he said, noting his usual chopper was grounded for maintenance at the time.
One mission was collecting soldiers from a combat zone is Cambodia, he said. The second was dropping off a unit of special forces in Laos.
They were both “easy days,” he said, noting the chopper didn’t come under fire on either occasion.
Holland said he entered the military as an engineer, working mostly in a quarry, before advancing to gunner as a Specialist Fourth Class.
When he made the transfer to the 170th, he said, he arrived one evening to stow his gear.
“The crew chief came over and gave me my 60s,” he said. “The next morning, we were out. No one ever showed me what to do.”
He flew missions seven days a week, from sun up to sundown, for about three months until he was grounded by severe headaches, he said.
“I guess my nerves were shot,” he said. “But if I had to do it again, I’d do the same thing ... although I’d go into aviation quicker than I did the first time.”