Vietnam helicopter pilots take to the skies over Ramona

   Members of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) invaded Ramona Airport recently for helicopter rides and a tour of the Classic Rotors Museum.

   “We have more than 180 people from all over the country attending, and about 140 of them will be flying over a period of about 17 lifts,” event coordinator Dick McCaig said on July 3. “Some of these guys haven’t been in a helicopter since ‘Nam. It will bring back a lot of very specific memories to many of them.”

   The event was part of a six-day annual reunion in its 27th year. More than 14,000 helicopter pilots worldwide have become VHPA members. The only requirement is that members need to have piloted helicopters in Vietnam. 

   The pilots come from all nations. The organization, according to McCaig, is even open to Vietnamese pilots, though it is unclear if any have joined from that country.

   “Each year the reunion is held in different parts of the nation,” said McCaig.  “This year it is the Southern California Chapter’s turn.  I got volunteered to coordinate it.  Y’know—when duty calls, you answer the call!”

   Reunions are held the weekend of July 4 each year, with local get-togethers and meetings through local chapters the rest of the year. 

   A sheriff’s helicopter made an entrance for the Ramona Airport visitors. Copter 12 out of Fallbrook is a modified 206 “Super Huey,” said airport manager and Ramona resident Bo Donovan. “This is a way for the guys to see a totally different use and application than the one they became familiar with in Vietnam.” 

   In contrast, the Wings and Rotors Air Museum in Murrieta (www.rotors.org) flew in a fully restored UH-1B gunship flown on combat missions more than four decades ago. 

   “This is the real deal,” said veteran Bill Rutledge, indicating the gunship. “I was on one just like this in ‘Nam. We would go into some areas that were so hot—night flights—using tracer rounds. Sometimes it looked like the sky was on fire.”

   Not a pilot, Rutledge was a gunner and guardian of pilots and crew. Rutledge, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient, flew more than 1600 combat missions and is among veterans written about in Richard Knotts’ book “Fire From the Sky.” Numerous medals are stacked in neat rows on Rutledge’s flight suit, which cannot hold all of the medals he earned. 

   McCaig remembers smoke-filled skies and tracer nights. 

   “Sometimes there was so much smoke in the air you couldn’t see anything around you,” he said. “In order to land, all you could do is look down through the chin bubble (by the pilot’s feet) to watch for the ground and only hope you were pointed in the right direction.  The tracers lit up the sky like fire at night.”

   Helistream Helicopters came from Orange County with pilots Gary Wentz and Rod Anderson to provide a Super Huey (Bell 205A++) for the 12-minute flights circling Ramona to Barona and back.  As the craft flew with open doors, riders could use imagination to think of what it might have been like more than four decades ago. 

   “I can’t imagine not having seats,” said Debra Walker from San Jose, nervous about the open compartment.  As husband Jim “Gunny” Gunderson took the controls of a Huey for the first time since 1972, Walker held tighter to the passenger on her left. 

   The eager crowd waited for the “thwock! thwock! thwock!” sound of the returning rotor blades. 

   “It’s been 40-some-odd years later and the sound still makes me stop,” said McCaig. 

   Anticipating the ride to come, excited chatter from children was a sharp contrast to the surrounding adults. Some of the former pilots waited with indefinable expressions.  Was it nostalgia?  Sadness? Eagerness for the flight? 

   The first group of passengers in the Huey started the return journey with a slow bank to the left. As the craft slowed, the sound of the rotors became more pronounced. 

   A voice came over the intercom.

   “Bet they can hear us now.”

   “The sound of freedom,” came the reply.

   For more information about the helicopter museum at Ramona Airport, call Classic Rotors Museum:  760-650-9257.

   For information on the VHPA, visit vhpa.org, call 800-505-VHPA (8472) or write to VHPA,  5530 Birdcage St., Suite 105, Citrus Heights, CA 95610-7698.

   
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