Students at Iowa Western Community College restore a Vietnam-era helicopter with the help of veteran volunteers.
The UH-1 Huey, owned by the Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, will not need to fly but will be on permanent display at a public park in Papillion to be called the Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park, according to Tom Brown, president. of the foundation. The park is just south of the Sum-Tur Amphitheater and about three miles from the Omaha National Cemetery.
“We have a 50-year lease on the property from the town of Papillion,” he said.
The park will feature a granite wall engraved with the names of the 396 Nebraskans who died in the Vietnam War, as well as the helicopter and 11 granite obelisks, Brown said.
Vietnam veteran George Abbott, the foundation’s secretary-treasurer, said he was “very” excited about restoring the helicopter for use in the park.
“It’s a key part of this memorial to the 396 Nebraskans who died in this conflict,” he said.
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“Part of the memorial was always going to be a helicopter,” Brown said. “We were just going to keep looking until we found one.”
Brown was transported on Hueys while serving in the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. His unit provided support to ground troops by restocking food, bandages, ammunition, and other supplies. There were also Hueys that served as gunboats during the war, he said.
Abbott, one of at least 10 veterans who helped with the restoration project, remembers seeing Hueys from his perspective as a gunnery officer on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam.
“We’ve seen these Huey workhorses transport troops and supplies in and out of strategic combat areas and provide fire support to those troops,” he said.
As it turned out, the memorial whirlwind had to travel a long way before it could be prepared for its final resting place at Papillion.
“I had put a request in our veterans magazine (The VVA Veteran) that we were looking for one,” Brown said. “One of the gentlemen from Vermont read it by chance. They were kind enough to donate the helicopter to us.
Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chapter 116 offer in Bennington, Vermont stipulated that the Nebraska group would assume responsibility for transporting the helicopter. Chapter 116 held the helicopter for nearly two years while the Nebraska organization raised funds for the move. About $5,000 later, the helicopter was loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported from Bennington, Vermont to Bennington, Nebraska.
It was after the bird landed that the Iowa Western got involved.
“I was approached by JR Richardson of Bellevue University,” said Dylan Driscoll, chair of the Aviation Maintenance Technology program at Iowa Western. “They were looking for a place to house the helicopter while they were working on it.
“We’re really excited to be a part of this and to have the veterans come in and talk to the students – that’s been really important as well,” he said.
Bellevue University, which has a strong veterans program, facilitated the project by lining up parties to fill different roles, Driscoll said.
“There’s a lot of Vietnamese history behind it, which makes it all the more interesting,” he said.
The Huey arrived in Iowa Western on May 15, 2021 on a flatbed trailer, Driscoll said. With the height of the trailer and the weight of the crusher, two forklifts were used to unload it. The tech work didn’t start until last fall, but there were a few students who hung around as the spring semester wrapped up and helped clean it up.
“He was sitting in a field in Vermont and it was tough,” he said. “It was dirty and in a lot of pieces.”
Inside, the floor was covered in sand, dirt, etc., Driscoll said.
Aviation student Jacob Jones said he even cleaned up bird nests.
Driscoll said a dozen students helped with the restoration process, which is still ongoing.
“A lot of what we’ve done is cut out components that we don’t need to get rid of the weight,” said fellow student Josh Wadhams. “Part of our job is going to be beautification.”
The surface of the helicopter showed spots of rust and corrosion that needed to be removed. The group is trying to find a shade of paint to cover the nude sports that will match the weathered look of the original so it looks authentic, he said.
Wadhams served in the US Air Force from 2001 to 2007, then worked for the Air Force as a private contractor for 11 years. He was a technician but specialized in ejection systems.
“I learned a lot of mechanical skills, but when it came to knowledge, I was missing a lot of what we learn here,” he said.
Now Wadhams is using his GI Bill to earn an associate’s degree and gain full certification as an aviation maintenance technologist.
Aidan Brown, who is also working on an associate’s degree, worked on rust and corrosion grinding and thread removal. He removed some of the floor panels to access a lot of the wiring.
“Most of the engine is down, the transmission is down, most of the hydraulics are down,” he said. “There’s still some wiring left.”
Aidan Brown moved to the Omaha Metro from Scotland last July to marry his girlfriend, which he did in August. Back in Scotland, he had worked at one of Glasgow’s two airports handling baggage.
“I was interested in aviation, and it was close to where we were staying,” he said of the Iowa Western.
William Newstrom of Omaha helped put the floorboards back on and tighten the screws. He also applied rust remover and helped set up a pilot/co-pilot seat, which required two people. Omaha’s Nathaniel Rokes opened an access panel under the bird so he could remove the hydraulic lines—again, to save weight.
However, some weight will also be added, Driscoll said.
“We’re having a mock-up transmission made,” he said.
This will give them a place to attach the mast that will hold the rotor blades – and add some weight to hold the helicopter in place.
“It has to be of heavy construction to withstand the winds,” Driscoll said.
One of the challenges of the project is finding parts for the 53-year-old aircraft.
“A ton of parts we needed were missing – even for static display,” he said.
It still requires rotor blades, linkages and counterweights, plus a few smaller parts. Another puzzle is how to restore the tail boom, which was sawn off instead of removed by unscrewing the four bolts that held it in place.
“It’s been kind of a long process and an educational process for everyone involved,” Brown said.
When the Huey is in place, New Century Art Guild of Elk Horn, Iowa will add several granite figurines to the exhibit, Driscoll said.
“There are a lot of Hueys in the United States, but I’ve never seen one with stature like that – so for me that’s going to set it apart a bit,” he said.
A groundbreaking ceremony will be held at 2 p.m. on March 29 (National Vietnam Veterans Day) in the park, Brown said. Former Secretary of Defense and Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel will speak, and Papillion Mayor David Black will be the emcee.
Construction of the structures in the park is expected to begin in early April, with an opening scheduled for March 29, 2023.