News: Hueys vital during Vietnam War
Story by Lance Cpl. Scott L. Tomaszycki
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. - Marine Light Helicopter Squadron 167 was born at Marble Mountain Air Facility in the Republic of South Vietnam, April 1, 1968, in the midst of a foreign civil war. Armed with ever-changing helicopter technology, the squadron saw the UH designation Huey grow in power, transforming into the modern war machine it is today.
Helicopters were a new sector of Marine aviation that had only begun in the 1950s as reconnaissance and medical evacuation aircraft. Helicopters with weapon kits had been experimented with, but the Marine Corps made no commitment to the concept of a gunship. The idea of assault transports wasn’t thoroughly tested until the Vietnam War. The requirements for helicopter assault missions weren’t entirely known at the outset of the war, but technology developed when light helicopter doctrine met reality.
“The Marine Corps recognized the need to escort the assault helicopters in and out of enemy territory, but that job was handed to fixed wing aircraft,” said Benjamin H. Kristy, a curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. “However, experience in Vietnam quickly showed that fixed-wing aircraft were in fact ill-suited for such work and the armed escort helicopter was born.”
An armament kit was developed for the Huey, which would take on both roles as the escort “gunships” and light transport “slicks” until the Marine Corps adopted the Cobra. Cobras began Marine integration into the fleet in 1969, but would not be fully phased in for several years. In the mean time, technology would create the cooperative gunship and slick team still in use to this day.
Capt. Christopher Wright, the assistant historical officer for HMLA-167 said gunships and slicks would search for the enemy in teams. Slicks would either have a “firefly” or “sniffer” kit; meaning either a very powerful spotlight or ammonia-detecting sensors, to find enemy troops. Accompanying gunships would make the kill once the enemy was discovered.
“Techniques, tactics and procedures of the modern HMLA requires both aircraft,” said Wright. “They complement each other in ways that make the overall squadron much more lethal.”
HMLA-167 was the last operating light helicopter squadron in Vietnam in 1971 when it was transferred to MCAS New River, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, where it continued to be on the cutting edge of technology.
The UH-1N model Huey made its first appearance in the fleet flown by the squadron in 1972. The major improvement was the twin engine which all previous models lacked.
Possessing two engines made the Huey much more capable, said retired Maj. Gen. Thomas Braaten, who saw Hueys in action as a CH-46 Sea Knight pilot in Vietnam. Hueys and Cobras would clear landing zones for incoming Sea Knights to drop off troops. In those days, the single-engine helicopter was under powered and had to work hard just to get off the ground. With upgrades, the Huey became more powerful and possessed more utility. After the engine upgrades, only major change to the Hueys capabilities was the introduction of night vision and infrared technology to aid night operations.
In 1995, both Hueys and Cobras were scheduled for an upgrade. Lt. Gen. Harold W. Blot, then Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation, found the planned midlife upgrade wouldn’t meet operational needs. Further, the program to upgrade the Cobra to a four rotor system with improved engines and transmission didn’t have funding. Also, the amphibious ships were running out of room to hold the aircraft and all their parts. This was unacceptable.
Blot spoke with his Navy counterparts and suggested cancelling the midlife upgrade and using the money to put the Cobra’s planned power system in the Huey. In the process, the Cobra would receive the upgrade as well. This plan would save money, reduce room needed on amphibious ships because fewer spare parts were needed and vastly improve the speed and lift capacity of both aircraft. The head of Naval Aviation agreed, and the UH-1Y and AH-1Z programs were born.
The UH-1Y reached the fleet recently and three new “Yankees” were issued to HMLA-167 Sept. 28.