I was fortunate to have the following article published in the Marine Corp Aviation Association Journal in May 2011. More information on the MCAA can be found at www.flymcaa.org.
On March 18, 2011, a ceremonial event was held at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to celebrate the final flight of the Marine Corps’ workhorse for the last 40 years – The UH-1N Huey.
The UH-1N entered service with the USMC in 1971 as a replacement for the UH-1E, which the Marine Corps had been flying since in 1964. Among the improvements of the UH-1N was a twin engine capable of generating 1,800 shp. UH-1N was used by the Marine Corps for battlefield reconnaissance, airborne command and control, and close air support. It has participated in each armed conflict the Marine Corps has had a role in since 1971. Like the “November” model replaced the “Echo” in 1971, the UH-1N has been replaced with the newest Huey variant – the UH-1Y Venom (aka the Yankee).
The ceremony was attended by local media, fellow Marines, retired Marines, and USMC command staff, including Major General Tom Conant – Commanding General of the 3rdMarine Aircraft Wing and Colonel Thomas Weidley – Commanding Officer of Marine Aircraft Group 39.
In honor of the event, one of the UH-1Ns was painted in VMO-6 (Marine Observation Squadron 6) Vietnam era colors and was flown by Medal of Honor recipient Major Stephen Wesley Pless. Major Pless was awarded the MOH for his “heroic actions, superior airmanship, and risking his life above and beyond the call of duty against enemy forces over Quang Ngai, Republic of Vietnam, August 19, 1967.”
During the morning session, the ramp was open for photos, including the VMO-6 retro bird. My escort on the ramp was 1st Lieutenant Emmanuel Jacinto. 1st Lt. Jacinto is currently a member HMLAT-303 flying the AH-1W Cobra. Later, I spoke with 1st Lt. Jacinto about his Marine Corp career and he told me he entered the USMC in 2003 as enlisted working as an airframe and hydraulic mechanic stationed at MCAS Miramar. In 2007, Emmanuel was commissioned and first attended “TBS” (The Basic School).
He was then sent to flight school at NAS Pensacola, Florida in late 2008. Graduating in early 2010, Emmanuel received his first choice selection of aircraft types to fly after flight school: his selection was the AH-1W Cobra. I asked Emmanuel why he chose the Cobra and he told me he liked the role of Close Air Support and Armed Reconnaissance. In August 2010, 1st Lt. Jacinto arrived at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California to begin Cobra transition training at HMLAT-303. With only 50 hours in the Cobra, 1st Lt. Jacinto estimates he will see his first combat assignment in 12-18 months.
After a few hours roaming the ramp with 1st Lt. Jacinto, we walked up to HMLAT-303s briefing room. There, the Commanding Officer of HMLAT-303, Lt. Col Brain Kennedy, welcomed everyone in the room and introduced the guest speaker, retired Colonel Larry Wright (a past member of VMO-6 who flew UH-1Es in Vietnam). Those in attendance included large group of Marine Corps aviators (both instructor and students) and a small group of the media.
During Col. Wright’s thirty minute presentation – “Combat Leadership Lesson’s Learned”, he spoke about teamwork, never being afraid to ask a question, reaching out to your fellow marine when you need help, and as a Marine you are never by yourself! During his presentation, Col. Wright had several funny comments including if you want to be a successful helicopter pilot you need to “keep your butt and head wired together.” When the presentation was open for questions, a Marine Officer asked Col. Wright, what type of personal protective gear he had while flying Hueys in Vietnam? Col. Wright talked about flying UH-1Es with non armored seats, soft body armor, and having to “acquire” Teflon armor from nearby Army bases. Col. Wright discussed about the early days of USMC helicopter aviation when armored helicopters were a “no no.” At the time, Marine Corps command considered the helicopter as an aircraft that transported troops and not conducting Close Air Support. Close Air Support was only a job for A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms. The last question was what was a day in the life of a Vietnam era Huey pilot like? According to Col. Wright, most of his missions were Medevac, which they were assigned once every three days. A very dangerous mission because you only got called when there was shooting and Marines were wounded. During one 24 hour period, Col. Wright conducted twenty Medevac missions. Col. Wright ended on a leadership note, “Leadership is like spaghetti. Push it from behind and you’ll get a mess. Pull it from the front and everything falls in place.”
After Col. Wright’s presentation we were dismissed for lunch. During lunch, I had the honor of speaking with three ex crew chiefs/door gunners of UH-1Es that flew with VMO-6 during the Vietnam War. Mike Holderness was a sergeant while he was with VMO-6 in 1968-1969. Dave Bushlow was a corporal and flew during the same time period as Sgt. Holderness and spent a total of four years in the USMC. Dennis Coochyouma, also a sergeant, was with the squadron from 1969-1970. All three told me how amazing the event was, including the retro painted VMO-6 Huey.
Serving as these veterans escort, was the modern day version of what these three men did more than 40 years ago – Gunnery Sergeant Aaron Jameson. “Gunny” Jameson has been in the Marine Corps since 1997. He is a crew chief on the UH-1Y and has had several tours to Iraq.
After lunch we once again had access to the ramp for photos. By this time, Major General Conant, Lt. Col. Kennedy, aircrews and ground crews had started to strap into their Hueys in preparation for this historic final flight.
At 1250 hours, one by one, the November model Hueys, lead by Lt. Col. Kennedy flying the VMO-6 retro Huey, taxied out and formed up on the end of the runway. Once all eleven Hueys had reached the runway, they took off for their flight to San Diego and back.
As the formation returned from their 45 minute flight, they flew west of the airfield in a “V” formation with Lt. Col. Kennedy leading the flight, over the hills, and returned to the airfield in a long “straight in” approach with all eleven Hueys in a line abreast formation. The only thing missing was “Flight of the Valkyries” playing from a PA system. Once over the outer marker of the runway, each broke off and landed. The gaggle of Hueys then taxied back to their respective spots on the ramp.
Once the rotorblades had stopped spinning, we were once again out on the ramp speaking with pilots and crew chiefs. Not only was this the last flight for the legendary UH-1N, but it was the last flight for USMC Pilot Captain Tom “Blue” Hunt. After 22 years in the Marine Corps, ten of those as a 2000+ hour Huey pilot, Blue landed his Huey for the last time. He was welcomed back from his final flight with a serious blast from the water hose of a crash truck that had miraculously found Captain Hunt standing near his aircraft.
Wet, soggy, and cold, Captain Hunt was generous enough to talk with me for a few minutes before debriefing for the last time. Captain Hunt told me his first twelve years in the USMC was as enlisted. As an enlisted NCO, Tom served in the 1991 Gulf War. I asked Tom, what was it like to fly in such a large formation? He said it is a lot of fun and rarely happens. He went on to say that the enlisted Marines did an outstanding job making certain every Huey was “up and ready to fly.” The enlisted Marines work hard each and every day and they deserve all the credit for making this flight possible.
I asked Tom what was his favorite memory flying the “November?” He told me it was an honor to fly his last flight as a member of the Huey Heritage Flyover and it is something he will remember for the rest of his life. He will also miss working side by side with his crew chiefs, getting the mission done day in and day out!
Lastly, I asked Blue what were his thoughts on his last flight as a USMC aviator? He told me he has had a great 22 year career, has built many lifelong friendships, and that it was an honor and a privilege to fly the UH-1N!
After more than 40 years with the USMC, the UH-1N has seen its last combat cruise and is now destine for the boneyard. If the Yankee model is anything like its older cousin, it should be still flying strong, protecting young Marines on the battlefield, through the year 2050.
A special thanks to Major Paul “Goose” Gosden. Major Gosden did a phenomenal job providing me with incredible opportunities to photograph and document this historic event in Marine Corps aviation history. An additional thanks to 1st Lieutenants Jacinto and Kangas, two outstanding young Marine Corps aviators, who took time out of their busy day to served as my escorts.