Bell UH-1 Huey — All American Helicopter

By Will Dabbs, MD
Posted in #History
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Bell UH-1 Huey — All American Helicopter

April 27th, 2024

7 minute read

The Bell UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the Huey, is one of the most recognizable helicopters in the world. In many ways, the helo is synonymous with the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. From troop transport to medical evacuation to air assault, these airborne utility helicopters proved invaluable to America and her allies. In this article, former Army aviator Dr. Will Dabbs tells the story of these ubiquitous helicopters.

In this image, we see soldiers of the United States Army 25th Infantry Division loading onto Bell UH-1 Iroquois utility helicopters to conduct search and destroy missions in South Vietnam.
During Operation Wahiawa in 1966, members of the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division load onto UH-1D helicopters to conduct a search and destroy mission northeast of Cu Chi, Vietnam. Image: NARA

I have a friend named Tom who flew Hueys in Vietnam. Like most of the older aviators with whom I flew, this guy mastered his craft in Southeast Asia. In addition to being an invaluable source of combat experience, these veterans also had some epic stories. 

Flying Naked in the Vietnam War

Tom was assigned to a lift unit fairly deep in Indian country. No place in Vietnam was truly safe, but this particular hellhole was subjected to regular mortar and rocket attacks. On this particular day, Tom was taking a shower.

In this photograph, an American soldier — an forward air traffic controller — directs a medical aviation helicopter into a landing zone. A national guard soldier had been injured during a battalion parachute drop in the Republic of Vietnam.
In October 1966, this U.S. Army soldier directs an approaching UH-1 helicopter to pick up injured soldier after a paradrop in South Vietnam. Image: NARA

Shower facilities were typically nothing more than a tent with a wooden floor made from ammo crates and some kind of gravity-fed water system that sprinkled cold water on you long enough to remove a little soap.

In this photograph, we see the most-produced version of the Iroquois military helicopter deliver ammunition, grenades and rations to United States Marines during Operation Oklahoma Hills during the Vietnam War. The helicopter used air mobility as its strength in supporting ground troops and could carry a large amount of munitions.
A UH-1 of the 1st Marine Division delivers supplies to Marines during Operation Oklahoma Hills in April 1969. Image: NARA

Tom was vigorously engaged in his ablutions when Charlie decided to drop a few mortar rounds on his little corner of heaven. SOP under those circumstances was to jump into the first aircraft you came to and fly it off someplace safe while the grunts and Redlegs attended to the mortar threat. Tom tore out of the shower tent and did just that.

In this photo, Marine artillery crews get reconnaissance and aerial support at their firebase where they were supporting Marine infantry conducting sweep and clear missions. The attack helicopters remained in common use with rockets and machine guns until the end of the conflict.
Marine UH-1E helicopters touched down at Fire Support Base Cunningham in 1969. Artillerymen of the 12th Marines were supporting the 9th Marines. Image: Lance Cpl. M. C. Patterson/U.S.M.C.

Tom landed soon thereafter at a nearby firebase adorned solely in a pair of shower shoes and a flight helmet. Somebody was kind enough to gift him some clothes for the subsequent trip back home. My buddy proved once and for all that it was indeed possible to fly an Army helicopter naked. I don’t know what first drew me to military service, but it certainly wasn’t the five-star accommodations.

UH-1H Huey Helicopter

The aircraft that my streaker buddy Tom was flying that fateful day in Vietnam was the UH-1H Iroquois. Army helicopters, with a single isolated exception (the AH-1 Cobra gunship), are named after American Indian tribes. However, everybody everywhere refers to the UH-1 as the Huey.

In this photo, we see a U.S. Army soldier repelling from a UH-1D helicopter during the Vietnam War. The Iroquois served many roles including command and control operations, insertion of troops, transport of supplies and medical evacuation. Hueys have served in these roles for decades ever since. 
The 5th Bn., 7th Cav., 1st (Airmobile) Cavalry Division at An Khe, South Vietnam conducts helicopter insertion training from a UH-1D in January 1967. Image: NARA

The original service designation was actually HU-1. That’s where the “Huey” came from. The first Hueys to see combat service were Dustoff medevac birds serving with the 57th Medical Detachment in Vietnam in 1962.

In this photo, we see U.S. Marines of 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company (3rd Force Recon) climb aboard a UH-1E for a paradrop during the Vietnam War. Image: Sgt. J.G. McCullough/U.S.M.C.
U.S. Marines of 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company (3rd Force Recon) climb aboard a UH-1E for a paradrop during the Vietnam War. Image: Sgt. J.G. McCullough/U.S.M.C.

More-so than any other single weapon system, the Huey came to exemplify the war in Vietnam. The unique sound that it made and the iconic visual image it struck combined to create something visceral in the souls of those who flew, serviced and rode in them. Everybody who ever wiggled the sticks in a UH-1 loved the thing.

Shown in this photograph is the original XH-40 prototype helicopter. It was the first of the Bell UH-1 series. Named the Iroquois, the Huey nickname was started by Allied forces in Vietnam. The first helicopter battalion was part of a new medical evacuation unit. The helicopters could fit up to 6 stretchers when it entered service.
The origins of the Huey family started with the prototype XH-40 helicopter. It first flew in 1956 and introduced the world to what may be the most successful helicopter in history. Image: U.S. Army

The prototype XH-40 that went on to become the iconic Huey first flew on 20 October 1956. The UH-1 represented the transition from piston-driven rotorcraft to those powered by turboshaft engines. The Lycoming YT53-L-1 powerplant of the XH-40 put out some 700 shaft horsepower. A more powerful engine, the Lycoming T53-L-13 that powered Tom’s bird, did exactly twice that. 

Shown here is one of the first production Bell Model 204 helicopters delivered to the United States military. The Army designated it as the HU-1, but redesignated it as the UH-1 in 1962. It deserves a central place in the Army Aviation Museum. 
The Bell UH-1A was the first model delivered to the United States military. Initially, the military designated the helicopter as the HU-1 which inspired its nickname. Image: U.S. Army

The A, B, and C-models sported a fairly short, stubby fuselage. The UH-1D model was a derivative of the Bell Model 205 and featured a longer fuselage design. The UH-1H combined the lengthened D-model architecture with the later 1,400-horsepower engine. It was the most common service variant. 

More than 16,000 copies of all sorts were ultimately manufactured. UH-1N and UH-1Y twin-engined Hueys remain in service with the USAF and USMC today.

UH-1Y Huey's assigned to Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) prepares to land during a helocast exercise at Ferguson Lake near Yuma, Ariz., April 3, 2015. The exercise is part of a seven-week training event hosted by MAWTS-1 cadre. MAWTS-1 provides standardized tactical training and certification of unit instructor qualifications to support Marine Aviation Training and Readiness and assists in developing and employing aviation weapons and tactics. (U.S. Marine Corps photograph by Staff Sgt. Artur Shvartsberg, MAWTS-1 COMCAM/Released)
UH-1Y Venom helicopters assigned to Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One land during a helocast exercise at Ferguson Lake near Yuma, AZ in 2015. Image: Staff Sgt. Artur Shvartsberg/U.S.M.C.

The UH-1H had a total dimensional footprint of 58 feet and a max gross weight of 9,500 pounds. Vne (velocity never-to-exceed) was 124 knots, or 143 miles per hour. The Huey typically flew operationally with two pilots and either one or two crewmembers. Cargo capacity was about 3,880 pounds. The most common defensive armament for the UH-1H was an M60 pintle-mounted machine gun mounted to each side of the aircraft. The men operating these machine guns were known as door gunners. 

Flying the Huey

I attended the U.S. Army rotary-wing flight school in the sweet spot between the piston-driven TH-55 and the turbine-powered TH-67. Primary flight training in my day was undertaken in vintage UH-1H’s. The first time I broke ground in a helicopter was at the controls of a Huey.

author at US Army rotary wing flight school in UH-1H helicopter
The author, pictured far right, at the U.S. Army’s rotary-wing flight school. He learned to fly helicopters in the UH-1H Iroquois. 

Reviewing the startup procedure gets my blood pumping even today some 33 years later. Here’s a brief video:

There’s really nothing in the world quite like that sound.

As the engine and rotors spool up, the aircraft runs through an interesting harmonic range. You can feel the airframe vibrate at different frequencies dependent upon how fast the main rotor is turning. Once the aircraft is up to speed it is smooth and responsive.

In this digital image, we see a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter as it flies over the battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) during its shakedown cruise in 1984. The Iowa had been modernized and returned to service to counter the Soviet Union during the President Ronald Reagan Administration.
A UH-1 Iroquois helicopter flies over the battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) during its shakedown cruise in 1984. The Iowa had been modernized and returned to service to counter the Soviet Union. Image: NARA

Though we did derisively refer to the UH-1H as the “Hueybago,” it was a sports car in the air. The Huey struck a nice balance between size and performance. In the hands of a competent pilot, a Huey will reliably induce airsickness in the uninitiated. 

Shown in this photograph is a UH-1N Iroquois helicopter, foreground, and an AH-1 Sea Cobra helicopter fly over the desert in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in 1991.
A UH-1N Iroquois helicopter, foreground, and an AH-1 Sea Cobra helicopter fly over the desert in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in 1991. Image: NARA

As you break ground and air taxi, the Huey feels like it is sliding on greased glass. Like most helicopters, control inputs, particularly at a hover, are extremely nuanced. You nudge rather than push. Over-controlling is a ubiquitous problem with fledgling helicopter drivers. Once you accelerate through ETL (Effective Translational Lift — essentially the point where a helicopter starts flying like an airplane) everything changes.

In this photo, we see ground crews unpack and prepare UH-1 Iroquois helicopters for flight in a port warehouse during Exercise REFORGER '85. Exercise Campaign Reforger ("REturn of FORces to GERmany") was an annual military exercise and campaign conducted by NATO during the Cold War.
Soldiers unpack and prepare UH-1 Iroquois helicopters for flight in a port warehouse during Exercise REFORGER ’85. Image: NARA

Maneuvering limits were +/- 30 degrees in pitch, 60 degrees in roll, and less than 0.5 positive G. However, a great deal of fun can be found inside of those numbers. Tearing along at 120 knots flying nap of the earth at the controls of a UH-1H is a rush like none other. The same experience while strapped into the gunner’s well is almost as cool. The world’s best roller coasters pale in comparison.

Ruminations on the UH-1 Iroquois

While flying a Huey tactically is an undeniable blast, the reason so many old Vietnam vets wax so nostalgic at the characteristic flop-flop-flop sound of those big rotors is because of what that sound represents. For American grunts deep in the suck running low on ammunition and knee deep in gore, the sound of incoming Hueys literally meant life.

In this photo, we see Marines engaged in Operation Urgent Fury advance along a road on Grenada. A UH-1 Iroquois helicopter prepares to take off to support their mission. 
Marines engaged in Operation Urgent Fury advance along a road on Grenada. A UH-1 Iroquois helicopter prepares to take off to support their mission. Image: NARA

Whether these big green machines were bringing in ammo, taking out the wounded, or extracting them for a well-deserved ride back to someplace less horrible, the sights and sounds of the remarkable Bell helicopter are forever burned into the psyche of American fighting men of a certain age. The UH-1H Huey is indeed America’s helicopter.

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Will Dabbs, MD

Will Dabbs, MD

Will was raised in the Mississippi Delta and has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After eight years flying Army helicopters, he left the military as a Major to attend medical school. Will operates an Urgent Care clinic in his small Southern town and works as the plant physician for the local Winchester ammunition plant. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three adult children, and has written for the gun press for a quarter century.

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