The Helicopter War

Vietnam was a helicopter war. While Purple Sunshine is only partly a Vietnam War story, helicopters play a major role in the story.

Approximately 12,000 helicopters saw service in the Vietnam War, the majority of them UH-1 Hueys. Bell Helicopter built 10,000 Hueys between 1957 and 1975, almost all of them for the U.S. Army. The Huey was the Army’s first turbine-powered aircraft and some of them are still flying today. Bell Helicopter continues to manufacture helicopters for the military and civilian markets.

The Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association estimates that Army Hueys flew 7,531,955 flight hours in the war between October 1966 and the end of 1975. Hueys may have logged more combat flight time than any other aircraft in the history of warfare.

In Vietnam, the Army developed its doctrine for air-mobile warfare still being used today. The helicopter changed the way the war was fought. Without the mobility provided by helicopters, it would have taken vastly more troops to secure the Republic of Vietnam’s borders with Communist North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Arguably, the helicopter made the war more intense. The average World War II infantryman in the South Pacific spent 40 days in combat. In Vietnam, grunts averaged 240 days in combat and most were only there for a year. World War II heavy bombers spent many hours flying to and from targets, but in most cases they were only exposed to fire for 10 or 20 minutes. In Vietnam, helicopters rarely flew higher than 1500 feet and were always within range of ground fire. And they flew out of base camps subjected to rocket and mortar attacks. Helicopters were, in fact, a high priority target of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army.

According to the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, a total 2,202 helicopter pilots died in the war and another 2,704 air crew were killed. That’s a substantial portion of the 58,000+ Americans who died in the war.

Every once in awhile, I hear the “whop, whop, whop” made by a Huey’s main rotor. It is a completely unique sound and it still makes me shiver.

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