It's not enough for retired Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall to wave goodbye to the Army]s last UH-1 helicopter flying on the West Coast.
Crandall, 77, wants to take the controls of the “Huey” himself.
“I would fly it tomorrow,” said Crandall, a Medal of Honor recipient from Port Orchard. “If I can, I’ll be in the cockpit.”
He’s the guest of honor at the Yakima Training Center today, where the Army Air Ambulance Detachment plans to mothball its last Huey.
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The iconic Vietnam-era chopper was still in use for medical evacuations at the Yakima grounds through September. It’s been replaced by new models of the UH-72 Lakota, a quick helicopter designed for medical missions.
The Huey’s departure marks the passing of an era to Crandall and other Vietnam veterans who remember the “whoop whoop” of its blades gliding into combat zones.
“You’ll never see a movie about Vietnam without some helicopters flying around and they’ll all be Hueys,” said retired Col. Philip E. Courts, 72, of DuPont.
Courts’ career spanned the Huey’s heyday. It was first produced in 1959, and Courts was an instructor pilot in the early 1960s teaching others how to fly the chopper. At the time, it represented a considerable improvement in power and speed. Courts was eager to fly the Huey instead of its cumbersome predecessors.
He served two tours of duty in Vietnam, flying Hueys on medical evacuations and attack runs. The Army sent about 7,000 Hueys to Vietnam; it lost 3,305, according to the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association.
Courts went on to command the 9th Aviation Battalion at Fort Lewis. He retired in 1988 with the Blackhawk and Apache established as the Army’s primary helicopters.
“I know the new equipment is much better,” said Courts. “It’s much more sophisticated and more capable. But I still have a soft spot for the Huey. We could not have done what we did in Vietnam without the Huey.”
Courts will be the featured speaker at today’s ceremony in Yakima. He’ll be joined by his son, Col. Michael Courts, who likewise became an Army helicopter pilot. Michael Courts now is the deputy chief of staff at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Crandall’s achievements in a Huey are memorialized in print and on film. He commanded a helicopter company during the Nov. 14, 1965 battle at the Ia Drang Valley, the first major battle between American ground forces and the North Vietnamese Army.
Crandall and his wingman, the late Maj. Ed Freeman, made 14 landings under fire and are credited with saving more than 70 soldiers.
Both received the Medal of Honor for their actions at Ia Drang. They’re memorialized in “We Were Soldiers,” a 2002 movie starring Mel Gibson that recounts the battle.
Crandall was an adviser to the movie crew. He last flew a Huey while working on the set.
He told Gibson he felt as if he’d never stopped flying.
“Like riding a bicycle?” Gibson asked. “More like sex, unless you’re really into riding a bicycle,” Crandall joked to the actor.
Crandall misses flying, but not only for the adrenaline.
“It meant that there’s a lot of people living today that wouldn’t be here – grandchildren and some great grandchildren – because that helicopter performed. It brought home a lot of my friends,” he said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org