Giving Personality to a Vietnam Warbird

This story originally stated the D model Huey crashed while Rick was on leave. Since publication, a crewmember from the flight in question reached out to the author to inform us the aircraft was shot down, not crashed. Keep an eye on the blog for more on that particular story in the coming weeks. –Ed.

This last summer we saw the UH-1B Huey 733 get delivered to the EAA Aviation Museum. The aircraft arrived from Light Horse Legacy in its basic olive drab paint. As one walks around our airframe you can see battle scars from her time in combat in Vietnam, some corrosion on the magnesium tail that early B models had which was a result of its time in the weather in Vietnam, along with bullet hole patches of different sizes. Those are also a result of her time in Vietnam.

One of the reasons we wanted this specific Huey was its amazing past. Our aircraft was named The Good Widow Mrs. Jones. The story on how this came to be and the work being done as we speak to bring it back to its wartime configuration are both worth sharing.

Rick Thomas joined the 121st AHC and began to fly slicks, or unarmed UH-1D’s. It wasn’t long before he wanted to add some color to his aircraft.

“There was a place in the town of Soc Trang which did a bunch of paintings for us,” Rick said. “They would paint the Vikings on our helmets and art on panels on our helicopters. I went down there just looking at things and found this nose panel that had a pin-up girl painted on it.” Rick went in and found out that the panel was inspired by a centerfold, and commissioned by a pilot who never came back to pick it up. It was a pin up on a tiger skin rug with the name The Good Widow Mrs. Jones painted above.

Photo by Connor Madison.

“I liked it and bought it,” Rick said. “I took it back and had it placed on my D model Huey number 777.” Rick flew with the art for the rest of his tour. He was out on leave when his D model was shot down and the aircraft took substantial damage. “When I returned I found that my aircraft was knocked out, but that the art was pulled from the aircraft and was hanging in the maintenance shop.”

By this time, Rick was transferring to fly Huey gunships or simply “guns” as the guys called them. Becoming a Viking gunship pilot was not as simple as just applying. Each applicant had to be brought to his peers and they would vote as to whether or not a person became a Viking. It was a very exclusive group. “They had to do that,” aircraft restorer and supporter of our Huey project Pat Rodgers recalled. “Not everyone can handle a gunship.”

The Huey gunships were mainly B and C models, which were equipped with upgraded engines to make up for the lack of power on the early models. They were armed with varying systems and weapons. In our case, our aircraft was armed with two rocket pods, 7.62mm miniguns, and M-60 machine guns.

Photo by Connor Madison.

Rick was accepted in the gunship role and soon had been given our Huey, number 733. Soon he installed his panel on the aircraft and the Good Widow name continued to serve on. Our aircraft would eventually wear two different pieces of art on its nose: The Good Widow and also the insignia of the Vikings. Thanks to Pat Rodgers we had the Viking art installed on the aircraft.

Early on in our preservation we were made aware of a very talented artist named Shayne Meder of the Fly Girl Painters website. Shayne is a USAF veteran and highly talented artist who paints art on current military aircraft as well as preserved warbirds. Her everyday job? She works for Pat at Aircraft Restoration Services in California.

Shayne offered to donate her skills and time to come out and paint the markings back on our aircraft. While she was here she also would try to recreate a second Huey panel for us. This one would depict our aircraft’s other identity as The Good Widow Mrs. Jones.

Museum director and Huey pilot Ron Connolly, curator Ben Page, and myself poured over photos of the 121st given to us from members of the unit such as George Quackenbush, as well as members of our original crew Mike Cusick, Brian Siplon, and Rickey Thomas. We are so very fortunate to have them as the ultimate experts on the aircraft. After all, they were there in combat with this machine. Those bullet hole patches I mentioned? They remember when and where they got them.

Photo by Connor Madison.

Shayne, armed with her airbrush and paint brushes, took to the task at hand and began painting the aircraft markings. This was being done while the museum is open. Many veterans have stopped in to share their experiences during Vietnam with the team as they watch Shayne work. Many of these stories end with simply saying, “The Huey got us out of there.”

Seeing the tail number come back on to the aircraft was special. Huey number 733 once again had an identity. Proudly sporting tactical triangles and some other small markings, the aircraft seemed to take on a new personality. Many staff members came by to comment that these small details really make the Huey seem more real.

We hope as museum visitors see this aircraft that it helps tell the story. The story of one airframe, in one unit, and the brave men who took it into harm’s way in a faraway land. We wish to honor the bravery it took, and the bond that was created between those who flew on her, and the bond that the men made with the machine itself. It is one that has lasted decades and has set the stage for an amazing reunion when global events allow.

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