By Eric Stearley
The quiet town of Laketon had one very noisy visitor Saturday as Huey 369 flew into town for the veteran celebration at the American Legion Sunset Post 402. More than 100 veterans, patriots, and enthusiasts came out to fly in the Vietnam War era helicopter, share stories, and celebrate the service of the men and women who protect our country.
The first Huey helicopter prototype took flight on Oct. 20, 1956. “Huey” is a nickname derived from the technical name HU-1. The 14 passenger Huey 369, an HU-1H model, went into service with the 498th Medical Company in 1971 where it served as a “dustoff” air ambulance in Vietnam. Forty-two years later, Huey 369 has been restored and is a fully functional helicopter in its original military configuration. The American Huey 369 organization flies into veteran gatherings around the area, taking veterans and supporters on member flights. Flight passengers at the Laketon event were flown from the legion lawn, over forest and field as the aircraft banked and dipped ultimately flying over North Manchester a few times and then back to the legion’s lakefront property.
Getting the Huey to events like this did not just happen. You could say that it all started when American Huey 369 President and Co-founder Johnnie Walker found a listing for the iconic aircraft on eBay eight years ago. In reality, it started when Johnnie was a kid. He and his brothers would stop by the military surplus stores whenever they got a chance and dream about owning all of the cool military equipment that they didn’t have the money to buy. Johnnie would grow up to serve as a Marine Corps captain in the 1980s, piloting a CH-53 helicopter. Eventually he moved back to Peru and started a business with his younger brother, Alan.
While Johnnie was browsing surplus stores with his brothers, Huey 369 was saving lives in Vietnam. The aircraft was used for medical evacuations and referred to as a “dustoff.” This distinction was reserved for the Hueys that flew into battle zones, picked up injured soldiers, and flew them to hospitals. Unlike most military choppers, dustoffs had no machine guns or rockets to defend themselves from the battle around them.
“This helicopter was actually flown in Vietnam and has the bullet holes to prove it,” said Lynn “Doc” Ammonds, a Huey dustoff medic in Vietnam who was at the event on Saturday. “When you look at that floor in there, that actually saved thousands of lives.”
Doc served 19 months in Vietnam. In the last few months of his deployment, he was flying dustoff around the Tet Offensive. He was based in Hue near the DMZ. When Doc came back from Vietnam he went to medical school and spent 32 years in the emergency room at Community Hospital in Indianapolis. He was forced to retire due to Parkinson’s disease, a result of exposure to Agent Orange during the war.
After the war, Huey 369 served state side in National Guard units and ended up at the Down East Emergency Medical Institute (DEEMI) in Maine. When Johnnie showed the Huey, which did not run, to his brother Alan, they decided to split the $40,000 price tag and bring the bird home.
“It was like I had just found the coolest thing in the surplus store,” said Johnnie.
They planned to park it in a pole barn to honor its service and use it as a display item for fellow veterans and patriots to come and see, but never to actually get back into the air. Sitting in a barn, however, was not what Huey 369 was destined for.
“Different people came into the group who served in Vietnam with these aircrafts, who worked on them, who crewed them, who flew them,” said Johnnie.
Along with this human capital, the group received two extraordinary donations: a second complete Huey from the Niagara Aerospace Museum, and 2/3 of a Huey from Scott’s Helicopter Service in LeSueur, Minn. After having Huey 369 professionally assessed, the group determined that it could be flown again, but it was going to take a lot of work.
“They told us it would take $500,000 to restore and we didn’t have 500,000 cents,” said Johnnie.
But what they did have was 2 2/3 Hueys and a group of members dedicated to the project. Many of the early members of American Huey 369 were veterans who worked on the Hueys during their service in Vietnam. They didn’t have the money, but they had the know-how to get the dustoff back in the air.
“[Johnnie] told me he was going to make one of them fly and I thought he was crazy, and I was a little bit crazy,” said Jim Steffel about joining the organization.
Steffel was an 18-year-old Huey door gunner in Vietnam. A Monticello resident, he met Johnnie at the Howard County Vietnam Veterans Reunion several years ago. Steffel was a door gunner based out of Da Nang for 11 months and 10 days during the war. He has been instrumental in the organization since.
“I was lucky. I was only shot down three times,” said Steffel. He worked to clear the road in front of the Huey during each takeoff at the Laketon event.
The partial Huey served as an in-house helicopter parts store. The H model Huey 803, donated by the Niagara Aerospace Museum served as a stationary display for Huey events as the organization worked to grow their membership and raise funds to get 369’s rotors turning.
“When we got back together there with the aircraft, after a few days, it all comes back to you, you know the maintenance and where the tough spots to work on are” said Gary Moline, crew chief for a Huey in Vietnam and early member of the organization.
In April 2007, 369’s turbine roared to life for the first time in many years. What started as a static military artifact was now a functional Huey, one of less than a dozen running models in original military configuration. In August of that year, 369 flew above the crowd at the first annual American Huey 369 reunion. At the event, DEEMI Director of Operations Richard Bowie announced that he had decided to donate a Huey turbine engine on the condition that it was used to restore 803 to flight.
Today, Johnnie Walker definitely has the coolest thing in the army surplus store. In fact, his organization has nine Hueys, two of which, 369 and 803, now fly members at more than a dozen events each year. The organization is currently working to restore a third aircraft, the HU-1B gunship Huey 049 to flight, completing the Huey trilogy. Soon Johnnie and his crew will be able to fly the dustoff, assault, and gunship Hueys to events throughout the year.
American Huey 369 now has nearly 6,000 members. Johnnie stressed the importance of these members in being able to pursue the organization’s mission. A Huey burns through $2,500 in fuel each hour that it’s in the air. The $100 membership allows the organization to fuel and maintain the aircraft so that it can continue to represent its aerial legacy at events. Members also have the opportunity to take a membership flight once each year.
Between the events like the one held in Laketon, the choppers are hangered in American Huey 369’s temporary museum at the Grissom Aeroplex. The museum is open Monday through Saturday, April to October. They hope to eventually break ground on the National American Huey History Museum at the location. The $4 million facility will be built when the group finds a passionate benefactor.
The helicopters add value to veteran events like this, but the events are not about the new museum, the organization, or even the Huey itself.
“The Huey is a catalyst just like the legion is a catalyst, but it’s about people,” said Johnnie after getting out of the pilot’s seat. “It’s cool to fly and bring people in but it’s all about being here to talk to people.”
“Every time that does a flyover, I can feel it,” said Dale Calloway, Vietnam veteran and four year member of American Huey 369. “It’s educational and it’s a healing process.”
“What the Vietnam veteran gets is talking to his wife, his daughter, his son, about his experience 40 years later,” said Johnnie. “They may never have talked about it before.”
Johnnie said the organization’s biggest educational message to everybody is about how important it is to support our troops and never let what happened to Vietnam veterans when they returned to the country ever happen again.
Doc first saw Huey 369 at Zionsville airport after hearing it was going to be there on a radio program.
“I stood back and kind of got teary-eyed and a guy came back and hugged me and said ‘welcome home,’ and that was the first time I’d heard that,” he said as he got choked up. “There’s just a special bond there. Even though we were there different years, different places, we all had a common experience, and the common experience was around the Huey.”
Saturday was the 112th time veterans were able to share that common experience at a Huey event without a single cancellation due to weather or maintenance. For more information on American Huey 369 and upcoming events, visit americanhuey369.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.