The Vietnam War was a helicopter war. Nearly 12,000 helicopters of varying types flew during the conflict, but one model in particular has taken on iconic status. Thanks in large part to the helicopter’s numerous appearances on the silver screen, it is now difficult to picture the Vietnam War without seeing the UH-1 Iroquois – better known as the Huey. Here are six facts about it.
1. It was originally intended to be an air ambulance
In 1955, the US Army asked for a new utility helicopter for use as an aerial ambulance with the Medical Service Corps. The Bell Helicopter Company won the contract with their XH-40 model. It made its first flight on 20 October 1956 and went into production in 1959.
2. The name “Huey” comes from an early designation
The Army initially designated the XH-40 as the HU-1 (Helicopter Utility). This designation system was altered in 1962 and the HU-1 became the UH-1, but the original nickname “Huey” remained.
The official name of the UH-1 is the Iroquois, following the now defunct US tradition of naming helicopters after Native American tribes.
3. The UH-1B was the US Army’s first gunship
Unarmed Hueys, known as “slicks”, were used as troop transporters in Vietnam. The first UH variant, the UH-1A, could carry up to six seats (or two stretchers for a medevac role). But the vulnerability of slicks prompted the development of the UH-1B, the US Army’s first purpose-built gunship, which could be equipped with M60 machine guns and rockets.
Later gunships, or “hogs” as they became known, were also equipped with M134 Gatling miniguns. This armament was augmented by two door gunners, secured in place by what was known as the “monkey strap”.
Crews were provided with chest armour, which they called “chicken plate” but many opted to sit on their armour (or their helmet) to protect themselves from enemy fire penetrating the relatively thin aluminium shell of the helicopter from below.
4. New Huey variants tackled performance issues
The UH-1A and B variants were both hampered by a lack of power. Though their turboshaft engines were more powerful than anything previously available, they still struggled in the heat of Vietnam’s mountainous regions.
The UH-1C, another variant designed for the gunship role, sought to solve this problem by adding an extra 150-horsepower to the engine. The UH-1D, meanwhile, was the first of a new, larger model of Huey with longer rotors and another additional 100-horsepower.
The UH-1D was intended primarily for medevac and transport duties and could carry up to 12 troops. However the hot air of Vietnam meant it rarely flew full.
5. Hueys carried out a variety of roles in Vietnam
Among the Huey’s greatest strengths was its versatility. It was used as a troop transporter, for close air support and for medical evacuation.
Medevac missions, known as “dustoffs”, were by far the most dangerous job for a Huey crew. Despite this, a wounded US soldier in Vietnam could expect to be evacuated within an hour of sustaining their injuries. The speed of evacuation had a significant effect on mortality rates. The mortality rate among injured soldiers in Vietnam was less than 1 in 100 casualties compared with 2.5 in 100 during the Korean War.
6. Pilots loved the Huey
Known as the workhorse of the Vietnam War, the Huey was a favourite among pilots who valued its adaptability and ruggedness.
In his memoir Chickenhawk, pilot Robert Mason described the Huey as “the ship everybody lusted to fly”. Of his first experience taking off in the Huey, he said: “The machine left the ground like it was falling up.”
Another Huey pilot, Richard Jellerson, likened the helicopter to a truck:
“It was easy to fix and could take any amount of punishment. Some of them came back with so many holes, you just wouldn’t believe they’d ever fly again”.