That’s when a restored American Huey helicopter visited as part of a 20-day, 3,500-mile journey from its home in Peru, Ind. Called American Huey 369 for the number on its tail, it is the focal point in a movement to create the National American Huey History Museum.
The helicopter was on public display before a private veterans-only ceremony was held that evening. Veterans enjoyed free meals (a fish fry) while the public made donations.
“It’s a good, healthy thing for Vietnam vets who never got a homecoming,” said Northwest Regional Airport owner Glen Hyde, who flew F-4’s as a Marine Corps pilot, and has owned and restored 10 Huey helicopters. “These guys went through a lot of stress. Vets talk to other vets about it but not as much to civilians. It gave us a chance talk.”
Among the group of veterans was Lantana resident and retired Air Force Col. Jim Ryan who earned 29 medals during three tours of duty in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s including two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Legion of Merit.
Col. Ryan who hadn’t piloted a Huey in 48.5 years took the controls of the helicopter and made multiple passes around the area. “It brought back a lot of old memories,” said Col. Ryan in an interview with Lantana Living.
Sitting on the skid step of the historic helicopter used in Vietnam as part of the 498th Med Evac, Col. Ryan reflected back.
“I once remember sitting as I am now on the skid step of a chopper similar to this one and I felt dirt and gravel flicking in my face. I soon realized bullets were hitting the ground in front of me, very close in front of me, dirt ricocheting into me. I realized suddenly I was being shot at by a sniper,” said Col. Ryan.
“I grabbed a grenade launcher out of the Huey and began to defend myself. The nearby banana grove provided heavy cover for snipers. After loading the weapon, I took control of the situation.”
The Colonel and the chopper melded like old friends separated for years with little time to catch up before going their separate ways. Before everyone said their goodbyes, Hyde honored Ryan in a private setting. The retired Colonel was presented with a beautiful wooden statue of a Huey displaying words of sentiment and appreciation.
American Huey 369, originally left Indiana in route to Branson, Mo., Amarillo, Texas; and Flagstaff, Ariz., before taking part in the Helicopter Association International’s Heli-Expo Convention in Las Vegas. From there it visited Window Walk, Ariz., and Mineral Wells, Texas last weekend. Next was Bell Helicopter’s Hurst headquarters Monday, then Roanoke on its way home.Hyde said more than 15,000 American Hueys have been built at Bell’s plant in Grand Prairie.
The 369 chopper, a VH1H model that can carry 14 people, was purchased by brothers John and Alan Walker in 2005 and restored to fly two years later. Since then they’ve taken it on more than 15 annual tours across the United States.
In 2009, the Walkers restored a second Huey and currently are in the process of doing the same to a Huey gunship. They keep the aircraft in a temporary hanger museum at the former Grissom Air Force Base but hope to raise $4 million through their tours to build a permanent 30,000-square-foot museum facility for 20 Hueys.
Hyde came in contact with John Walker last summer when the two discussed a helicopter parts transaction. After becoming fast friends, Walker accepted Hyde’s invitation to bring the 369 to Roanoke, a visit Hyde hopes happens every year.
For more information on next year’s potential visit, contact Hyde at email@example.com or 817-430-1905. More details on the American Huey 369 organization and museum effort can be found at AmericanHuey369.com.