News: Vietnam pilot, chopper reunite
Story by Cpl. Thomas Bricker
MCLB BARSTOW, Calif. — Have you ever had “the one that got away” only to get him or her back later in life? For one man, a love that was once lost, has now resurfaced in his life after more than 40 years.
Curt Lambert, a photographer aboard Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, recently discovered an aircraft he once flew in Vietnam is now on display at National Training Center Fort Irwin, Calif. Lambert, a former Army chief warrant officer two aircraft pilot with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, flew the UH-1H Utility Helicopter ‘659’ Huey during his time in Vietnam.
“I was in Vietnam from August 1970-71 and most of my missions were flown with 659 after I received my aircraft commander orders,” Lambert recollected.
Little did Lambert know, he’d soon be in the Army. He joined the Army right out of high school to fly helicopters. Originally intent on joining another service, Lambert was on his way to a recruiter’s office with a friend, when he was distracted along the way.
“A friend of mine wanted to join the Navy or Air Force, something that was safe. While we were walking to their offices at the recruiter’s station, I saw a mannequin with a flight suit and a sign that read ‘Join the Army. Fly helicopters right out of high school.’ Something in me just gave way. I did a right face and walked in to sign up. I still don’t know what possessed me to do it. I think it was because it was the most exciting thing I could have done after school,” he said.
During his time in Vietnam, Lambert flew many different missions in 659, ranging from support of his unit’s infantrymen to missions with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam over Cambodia. Although there were medevac units in Vietnam while he was there, much of Lambert’s work consisted of running these missions for his own unit’s men. The bond formed between Lambert and his helicopter while in Vietnam was unrivaled. Countless hours of Lambert’s time in Vietnam were spent flying 659.
“I loved that piece of machinery; I absolutely loved it,” he explained. “I mean, cars can be run into the ground but this thing just kept going.”
After a safe return to the states and his contract completed with the Army, Lambert went on to pursue a career in photography and raise a family, but not without wondering what became of the bird he flew during his time in Vietnam. He has several photos of the chopper in Vietnam but never knew what happened to it afterward, he explained.
Lambert uses a forum-like website to keep in touch with other soldiers who served with him and in the 11th ACR. It was through one of his buddies online, Lambert learned what had become of his lost love.
“I was contacted by someone who was a crew chief for 659 after I was with it, who asked if I had seen my helicopter after it was moved to [NTC] Fort Irwin,” Lambert said.
“He told me he had been out to see it several times. When he told me, I was amazed. It was hardly believable.”
Lambert has lived in the High Desert area for more than 30 years, and was a mere 40 miles away from the bird that kept him safe more than four decades ago. Lambert contacted Fort Irwin’s museum to confirm whether a helicopter out there was, in fact, the same he flew in Vietnam. The answer had the same impact for Lambert. Indeed, it was his aircraft.
“The 659, now known to those here at Fort Irwin, as the ‘McKnight’ has been here at this base since 1998,” explained Neil Morrison, museum director at NTC Fort Irwin.
“It’s known as this in commemoration for Col. Matt McKnight, a soldier who also flew it in Vietnam as a lieutenant and on its last mission, a humanitarian mission. It was on its way to Fort Irwin when it was called on to help rescue civilians whose aircraft collided over a lake along the way,” he added.
When Morrison was contacted by Lambert in regards to 659, he found it just as surprising as Lambert did, but for other reasons.
“I was astonished that a former pilot of this helicopter lived so close,” he said. “I had no idea that could happen.”
After a few weeks of preparation, Lambert made a trip to Fort Irwin to see his former helicopter, the first time he would see it in more than 40 years. When he saw it for the first time, emotions ran high and nostalgia ran through him as expected.
It was an incredible moment,” Lambert said. “I didn’t think the odds of this happening could even exist.”
There isn’t much more to be done now that Lambert and 659 have reunited. It’s time now to introduce her to the family and catch her up with what she’s missed over the years.
"I’m planning to bring my grandkids down to show them 659,” Lambert explained. “They’ve always been interested in military stuff and I think it would be cool to show them something so closely related to the family,” he concluded.