Huey takes flight

Vietnam vets take guests, other vets up in the air

If you've visited The 1968 Exhibit, chances are you've seen the Huey helicopter, which looks as if it has landed right in the middle of a '60s-era living room.

Greeting visitors at the show's entrance, the aircraft is part of a stunning tableau that includes film and audio and serves as a visual metaphor of the impact of the Vietnam War on American life.

And because it is part of a museum exhibition, the helicopter will probably never again take to the skies, unlike the Huey built and maintained by a group of Bay Area-based Vietnam veterans, their families and friends.

Known as the EMU 309, the Army green Bell UH-1H aircraft, or "slick," is both a tribute and flying museum. Fabricated from the skeleton of a Huey helicopter once owned by the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office, the functioning aircraft honors those who fought and died while serving in the war as part of the 135th Assault Helicopter Company, an experimental military unit made up of soldiers from the U.S. Army and Australian navy.

But while the 309 remains true to the spirit of the original, its creators think of it as a representation; the longest surviving slick in the 135th no longer exists and no helicopters from the company remain. So veterans Geoff Carr and Peter Olesko decided to build a replica of the helicopter they navigated through the war-torn landscape of Vietnam.

"We're trying to preserve this so younger people will know about these things," Carr told a group of veterans, friends and guests gathered behind a hangar at the Hayward Executive Airport.

Tall and outspoken with a ponytail peeking out from under his cap, Carr recounted the history of the aircraft as we waited for our turns to board the 309 one April morning.

Hueys were used to ferry Vietnamese and American infantry and served as medevacs, Carr told us. Their crew included an air commander, a co-pilot, crew chiefs and door gunners. Attrition rates were high and a Huey's average life expectancy was 8 months. Soldiers could wear body armor or "chicken plate" in the form of a vest, but there were advantages to forgoing it such as gaining the respect of Vietnamese sergeants or dodging safety risks if one's armor became entangled in a helicopter during a bad situation.

And the simplicity of the Huey's interior proved useful, too. If a pilot was shot at the controls, you'd simply pull the seat back and fly. "They gave you one of these at 18 or 19 years old," Carr told us. "You signed up for them."

After describing the attention and care it takes to get the 309 up in the air, Carr said it was time to climb aboard and buckle our seat belts for the 20-minute flight. We were given noise-muffling headphones to help lessen the Huey's deafening roar, and the pilots flipped switches and checked gauges before the helicopter began to ascend.

Soon, the 309 was flying above Hayward and the rolling hills of Sunol. Buildings and homes gave way to open space visible from the aircraft's exposed sides and I couldn't help but wonder what it must have felt like to ride in the belly of a Huey to and from battle in Vietnam.

Later, I spoke with a few vets including John Dubpernell, who likes to photograph the 309 and helped install the "1968" Huey at the museum. He said he enjoys being around the EMU 309 crew and other veterans, and seeing people fly; it augments his therapy.

Don Agren, who was visiting from Chester, Va., said it had been decades since he'd flown in a Huey. He wasn't surprised to learn that his former colleague, Geoff Carr, had rebuilt a helicopter.

"He was quite a crew chief," Agren said, his face glowing from the day's ride. "It's just so awesome to go fly in this thing."