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Sky Soldiers Land at the Vectren Dayton Air Show

by Peter Wine

Skip Lam is a man who is hard to satisfy. Most people who spent 21 years in the Army, then retired to become a stunt pilot for the movies (“China Beach” and “Tour of Duty”) and television (Magnum P.I.) would be ready to rest for a while.

But four years ago, John (Skip) Lam, from Greenville, Ohio, grew “tired of seeing legacy aircraft stuck on poles,” and wanted to bring them back to life for the public. So he helped create what has become a “living, flying, museum.,” called the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation (AAHF,) which now has over 1,000 members.

Because the AAHF mission is both saving aircraft from an untimely end and showing the public how they were used, 75 of these members participate in the Sky Soldiers Demonstration Team, that goes to air shows around the country, including a stop at the Vectren Dayton Air Show. But understand one thing: the Sky Soldiers are not focused on the aircraft. They use this demonstration as an interactive tool, to help the public “re-connect,” to tell “the untold story from Vietnam,” and “set to story straight.” They maintain the aircraft to help them tell the story.

This group of veteran pilots (many of them have also flown combat missions) have two jobs at most air shows.

The first is to entertain the crowd with a re-enactment of battlefield operations, with a program that includes narration and listening in on radio communications, while fixed wing and Huey helicopters conduct typical maneuvers. Skip Lam calls this a “tribute to our patriot brothers who died in these aircraft.” It’s a reminder he says that “freedom is not free for those who fight for it.”

The second is giving rides in the same Huey helicopters that take part in the demonstrations. The money goes to help offset the cost of maintaining and operating the aircraft throughout the year, so they can be flown instead of stuffed.

Skip reports that those who ride on these helicopters are often tell him that it’s “one of the most exciting experiences of their lives.” He says that each helicopter carries a Purple Heart, and when you fly with the Sky Soldiers, you are flying in the very same Huey that carried injured soldiers away from the battlefield, and thus were “saving the lives of injured troops.” It’s not hard to understand how that could be a very emotional experience.

The 2003 Vectren Dayton Air Show was both very helpful and somewhat frustrating for the Sky Soldiers. They were able to provide rides for over 2600 people, including a record 800 people in a single day, but had to turn more than 500 people away, because you can only fit so many people inside a Huey at once

This year, the weather has not cooperated as much, and no doubt the number of rides per day will be less. But the combat veterans flying the combat veteran aircraft appreciate each and every one. 

And the lines for rides prove that being a part of history, instead of just reading about history, continues to be a hit with the crowd.

As part of this story, I asked Mike Brady to review what I’d written so far (the part you’ve just read.) Mike is President of the AAHF, and was in charge of the Sky Soldiers Demonstration Team at the 2004 Vectren Dayton Air Show. 

Mike wanted to make sure that I understood that the Sky Soldiers use the helicopters to teach and not to get stuck on the aircraft as relics. Because each Huey was a combat veteran aircraft, it allows the public to “fly and touch” history. It gives the public the ability to get “hands-on and feel it.”

To make sure I understood, Mike said I ought to go on flight. I agreed, and while I was waiting, I overheard a man who had just returned from a flight talking to his friends who had stayed on the ground. All I heard was, “it gives you an appreciation...”

The feeling you get when a helicopter takes off is like no other in aviation. It’s as if a giant person reaches down and grabs the top of the aircraft and pulls on it. Then you’re off the ground and the ground falls away and you feel ‘normal’ again.

But there is something different about this flight. Part of the experience of this flight is like lots of other things I have done as a reporter. I look around and compose pictures. I take pictures of the other passengers looking out. I take pictures of the things on the ground. But somewhere along the way the rush of flight gets stripped away, and I am reminded of the purpose of this flight.

I am flying in the same seat occupied by combat soldiers during the Vietnam war. One (or more) of the soldiers that occupied this seat may have been hurt or even died defending this country. It changes everything. I look out the open door and imagine that the trees of Dayton are the jungles of Vietnam. I try to imagine that there are people on the ground shooting at the helicopter I’m flying in. I try to imagine that the machine gun next to us is our only defense against being killed.

But it’s not Vietnam, and they aren’t shooting at us. I would be able to make a safe landing without being shot down. Once on the ground, I try to imagine what it would feel like to land after a trip through the jungle, knowing that in reality the hard work had would just be starting.

But remember, there is a positive side to these helicopters, too. A helicopter very much like this would have been used to airlift the wounded soldiers to help, and were responsible for saving countless lives. This too, is another part of the history you get to touch during your flight.

I went over to thank Mike for the experience. I explained that it was difficult for me to imagine that there might be people on the ground shooting at us, and he said that most of the time you don’t see them, you just see a flash, and that the metal covering the helicopter was really very thin, and wouldn’t stop the bullets.

This means that if the sniper is accurate, the thin metal jacket of the Huey won’t protect you. Worse, for those on the edge, the gunners, there was virtually no protection at all. Every time we could see the ground was another chance the snipers had to kill us.

I am what is called a “Vietnam-era” veteran, because I was in the service while the Vietnam war was coming to an end. But I spent all my time in the United States, with no real threat of seeing combat.

I realize today how inaccurate that label really is. I may have been alive at the same time these aircraft were working in Vietnam, but I may as well have been on Mars until today.

Thanks to our pilots Joe Wade and Dave Sinclair for the trip back in time, and thanks to all the members of the AAHF and the Sky Soldiers Demonstration Team, who don’t take a dime for all the work they do to help educate the public.

Now I feel I know why there are such long lines to ride in a Huey. But I can’t say I re-connected. I think it was the first time I really understood.

 

 

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