How the Helicopter Seat Came Home

The phone rang and one of the full-timers in the National Guard Special Forces Company picked it up.

“Sergeant Pseudonym speaking, not a secure line.” (There was a long spiel you were supposed to say. It wasted time. We didn’t bother, to the irritation of all the sort of officialdom whose enmity told you you were on target).

“Can you guys destroy two helicopters?”

Can we destroy [fill in the blank]? Is the Pope Catholic? Is water wet? Do Kennedys party hearty? “Sure thing. What’s the deal?”

Restored UH-1B in a museum.

Restored UH-1B in a museum.

It turns out an Army Guard unit in our unit’s state (as is common with SF Guard units, most of us individuals were from out of state) had transitioned from flying attack helicopters — obsolete, Vietnam-era UH-1B and AH-1S models — to being a Black Hawk medevac unit. Good mission, and they sure loved the extra power and twin-engine safety of the ‘Hawk, as opposed to the Huey, which was revolutionary in its day, but was a product of the time when cars had tail fins, and putting a turbine engine in a helicopter was a new and dodgy thing.

The commander of the unit had turned in most of the Hueys and Cobras for their smelted future as Hyundai cylinder heads and COSCO screen doors, but he had saved the two most historic craft in his fleet with a view to donating them to an air museum.

The air museum said, “No, not unless you also give us money to restore them.” Well, that the skipper didn’t have. So he tried another air museum.

And another.

And another.

Hueys were either too recent, or too plebeian, and museum curators tend, these days, to be Baby Boomers whose fondest memory of the Vietnam War is how they sent some poor black city kid or hayseed Polack farm boy in their place, so the iconic copters sat at the unit’s old hanagar on an Air Force Reserve base for months that turned into years. The commander with museum ambitions changed out. The Air Base commander who had told him,” leave them as long as you need to,” changed out. The guys that changed out, changed out, as season follows season. The two historic copters were now derelict trash interfering with good order on the Air Base. Not to mention the planned reuse of the hangar as a sort of pavilion with a podium from which the new Wing King could speak enlightenment to his adoring troops, in mandatory attendance. The Air Force Reserve poked the Army National Guard State Headquarters (since renamed Joint Force HQ, and a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, not to mention of well-connected staff officers entering Year 16 of war without a day in 1000-mile proximity to same, there never was). “Get off my lawn,” was the subtext of the message.

In State HQ, the lights went on and unholy things you’d rather not dwell on scattered and scurried. The Fundamental Law of Plumbing applied and you-know-what flowed downhill until the tasking reached some harried Property Book Officer (“Extra duties I don’t want for $500, Alex!”) in the form of an unambiguous command: make those helicopters disappear.

Putting them on eBay was considered, until an outbreak of that persistent plague that rises up and inhibits the human race from truly taking charge of its God-given mastery of the planet.

Yes, lawyers.

The lawyers pointed out that the helicopters must be demilled, that is, rendered unusable and their key parts rendered unusable as weapons of war. Just having engines and avionics out of them — which parts had been cannibalized, or souvenired, we’re not really clear which, in the intervening decade — would not do. They needed to be thoroughly and completely destroyed.

Now, State HQ being the natural habitat of staff officers, hothouse flowers, and power groupies of all kinds, you could look long and hard without finding anyone who had ever destroyed anything more substantial than a subordinate’s part-time Guard “career,” or had any idea how to go about it. So the search began for someone who could destroy something, a talent that is in rather short supply in the upper regions of today’s military.

They found “Company C, XX Special Forces Group” in a phone directory, and someone dimly remembered a movie with John Wayne.

“So, can you guys destroy two helicopters?”

“Yeah, we can do that.”

The question became how to (1) not offend the various Air Base Commanders, Wing Kings, panjandrums, sachems, sagamores and satraps on the Air Base and (2) get the max training value from a couple of helicopters, in such a way that the rotorcraft would be rendered indisputably hors de combat. Everybody’s first choice, “Demo crosstraining!” would certainly have reduced the ships to coin-sized and smaller shards of aircraft aluminum, with all the joy and adventure that comes from having your medics, commo men, and the knuckle-dragging weapons men play with C4, hollow charges, ANFO improvised cratering charges and all kinds of things, usually without bothering with all the ugly arithmetic that the actual demo men have to learn. (“That equation needs more of factor for Plenty!” FOOM!).

That idea was vetoed by alarmed Air Force officers, and a new requirement was explained: destruction of the rotorcraft had to be environmentally sound. 

That meant that Plan B, the big bonfire hot-enough-to-ignite-aluminum in the swamps, pardon, wetlands on the far side of the runway — an area we knew all too well from jumping a tad early on our runway-centric drop zone — was right out, too.

What we came up with was, since medical combat trauma crosstraining was already on the schedule, we’d use the helicopters to stage crash scenes, giving the guys some practice in crash rescue and recovery and casualty evacuation as well as initial treatment in the austere environment.

We hatched an idea with a Chinook outfit to longline the Hueys to a point about 200 feet over the clearing we were given as a training area, and then drop them in. Nothing simulates a helicopter crash like a falling helicopter, right? But that was vetoed by State HQ, with some hurtful words about the unwisdom of letting aviators and SF mission-plan over pitchers of beer. Instead, we had to crash the helicopters using our own resources.

It worked better than expected, although they were kind of sore about the damage to the 5-ton truck (a Huey, it turns out, is stronger than you think).

One of the resources a Special Forces unit does not have is a bunch of privates, and so it’s quite normal for your 5-ton driver to be a bored senior sergeant. And it’s not unheard of for SF guys to take a shine to souvenirs. And if you look around the ranks, you just might find a guy who has an A&P rating and an incredible set of tools in his trunk.

Minty crew seat, from another museum.

Minty crew seat, from another museum.

And so it came to pass, when, hours after the exercise was supposed to be entirely secure, with the medical trauma training pronounced a challenge and a success, and even the lawyers thrilled with the shredding of the helicopters incidental to the training evolution, and the green eyeshades of the Finance Corps pleased with the economy of it all, a borrowed 5-ton wrecker dragged in our hors de combat 5-ton cargo truck, complete with a hunk of rotor blade embedded in the brush guard, radiator and fan, and a UH-1B command pilot seat, inexplicably, in the back.

The mechanic cursed his friend, because it was so heavy. We’d guess about 250 lb. It rode the rest of the way home hanging out of the trunk of an old Mustang, into which it did not fit (an attempt to borrow the 5-ton for this purpose was met with unamusement, and pointing out that the 5-ton was paws-up for the next couple of weeks). Then it was horsed up stairs into a Man Cave or War Room, and spent several years there providing a quasi-comfortable seat for reading war books in, before migrating to its current location in the War Room (just inside the Reviewing Our Panzers Balcony, which is really a thing) at Hog Manor. And now, it is promised to an old teammate for his man cave.

Hey, he’s younger. And he, too, was there that day.

Sorry about the truck.

32 thoughts on “How the Helicopter Seat Came Home

  1. medic09

    And good times were had by all.

    Y’see, this is why so many admin people especially resent SF types. You not only do your thing, but you have far more fun (and far more fun memories) doing it than a soldier should be allowed to have.

    Great story.

    1. medic09

      Only now do I realize that when I would see some local Group types at our favorite (because it was close) rock-climbing spot, that they were probably up to a lot more mischief than just the two-pitch assault on the little cliffs.

      1. Hognose Post author

        I have long believed that SF is an escape the Army uses to get max value from high-functioning misfits. Low-functioning misfits just get chaptered out. I wonder what the social mechanism is in the IDF, when you have a nation and an army made up of people who are culturally (speaking of a median, as always with stereotypes) smart, stubborn, and individualistic. The pre-’67 IDF with its egalitarian affectations, cult of aggressiveness, and simple uniforms seems like a different outfit from today’s IDF, which strikes me more like any other first world / civilized world service than the earlier, somehow more “Israeli” and even “Sabra,” IDF. But that’s from the outside looking in.

        1. medic09

          Sadly I think much of your observation regarding the IDF’s evolutionary changes is correct. I have thought much the same, from a more inside perspective. There are definite costs to be paid for developing the greater conventional and technological capabilities that Israel now has. Of course, the “we’re strictly on our own” mentality that bred the earlier IDF ethos had some of its own costs. Nonetheless, I prefer the character the IDF had before with all its drawbacks.

          You’d probably really enjoy the stories of how units like 669 (the IAF CSAR unit) were stood up and the shenanigans that went on in the early years to make it happen and work. Sadly, most of it is documented only in Hebrew. Even us lower-speed types had to make do and make things happen in a way that just isn’t common anymore.

          As for social selection within the ranks, I think the mechanism is pretty similar. Or was in my time. Selection for special units was originally by who knew you and wanted you, then became more organized and democratic but still favored certain groups in my time. The lower-functioning sorts simply found themselves channeled to positions where they were less likely to do damage in the various support roles. Until recently, most of the lower-functioning sorts were pretty patriotic (in a back-against-the-wall sort of way) and so my perception is they wanted to still contribute somehow. Not unlike football/soccer fans who will never get on the field; but are fiercely loyal to their team. There were also some confounding factors to it all. The Paratroopers were dominated by Ashkenazim (“whites”) from farming communities in my time; while Golani was largely Jews whose families came from the Middle East, as well as poorer urban Ashkenazim. So there was a fierce competition between them that played out in vying for ever more challenging training and combat roles. As you can imagine, that only contributed to overall performance. I don’t think all that happens so much anymore as everything has become more formal, more professional, more “first world/civilized world” oriented.

        2. Ben

          One of the Bragg shrinks admited this to me after a buddy and I pored several drinks in him and commenced with some interrogation. He called us all psychological deviants but said that was a good thing because the smart ones become pioneers of industry, world leaders, or some other nonsense. I missed the key qualifier but my buddy did not. He asked ” what about the dumb ones?” Without missing a beat the shrink says, “they’re all in prison.”
          The difference between SF and prison is apparently a slim margin of IQ points…

        3. GQ

          On the IDF: Same dudes, more constrained ROE. In answer to the question, “Are their enough bullets to kill all that need killing?” “No, and we are uncertain what to do about that.”

          1. medic09

            I hope you’re right, GQ. I fear that not only the ROEs much more restrictive (we saw some of that coming already in the 80s); but I’m afraid that the general culture of the IDF has changed too. I know it seems trite, but the first time I saw that officers are now wearing light colored uniform shirts I thought “this is a bad sign”. And I think many of the kids coming in have a different attitude as well, though the rate of volunteers for combat units is still very high.

  2. Hillbilly

    The first thing I thought of was demo training too, but they probably made a better Personnel Recovery training aid.
    Heck of a story.

  3. robroysimmons

    They must be fairly tough to destroy because I know a guy who piloted slicks in Vietnam and he had 4 shot down and lived to tell the stories.

  4. Sabrina Chase

    Epic. With all the markers of a classic “this is no sh*t”, complete with multiple layers of identity obfuscation. Glad to see the helo fought back against the 5-ton truck. Do not go gently into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light!

  5. Jim Scrummy

    “just inside the Reviewing Our Panzers Balcony,”… That is what I need at my house a “Panzers Balcony”! Who said great ideas do not come from the seat of a bar stool? Too many of my “great ideas” come from there…

    Great story!

  6. Boat Guy

    Ah the old (new) “Gotta be GREEN” thing strikes again.
    Once upon a time “we” were charged with disposing of “armored” vehicles; to whit 2x Suburbans and 1x Mrecedes sedan. Since we were in a country with a coastline taking them out and deep-sixing was discussed but heavy-lift assets were in scarce supply.
    What we did have was a range on a beach which had been recently used in disposing of a small portion of the country’s deteriorating and overabundance of all things ammo
    We filled the vehicles with HE arty rounds packed around with plentiful nasty third-nation plastique and wired in some good ol C-4 borrowed from some friends who happened to be offshore at the time. The lady who would become my Bride was given the honor of hitting the clacker as we huddled 1000-plus yards away behind a berm. Not sure what kind of components went whistling past overhead but it was a very satisfactory explosion and the disposal problem was solved by the locals who gladly carried away the pieces – all of which were easily portable by small and weak children

    1. DaveP

      “…as we huddled 1000-plus yards away behind a berm…”
      Did you have that ‘Hmm, maybe we’re still too close?’ moment before she racked it?

      DaveP

    2. Sommerbiwak

      Well the green thinking Secretary of the army (or Navy or Air Force) could make it an easier administrative process to turn two old Huey wrecks in to the proper scrapyards to properly dismantle them. But with nobody knowing where the birds were actually on the books and no easy way to find out blowi.g them up and using them in a training exercise was the easier way out for the officers. totally idiotic bureaucracy.

  7. rocketguy

    “Can we destroy [fill in the blank]? ” Heh…

    A few years ago, I walked into a machine shop with some sketches and started to chat up the supervisor about a job. I said, “I was wondering if you could make….”

    He cut me off and said, “Before you say anything else or show me the drawing…we can make damn near anything. How much time and money do you have?”

  8. Cap'n Mike

    Great Story

    I may or may not have the Helm Chair from a 47 Foot Motor Life Boat in my man cave.
    You have to keep an eye out for these kinds of souvenirs, one never knows when they will magically appear.
    I need to get me a “Reviewing Our Panzers Balcony”.

    1. jakew7

      In America, in the State of Kentucky, in the County of Bullitt, (named for a civil war general), there occurs a twice per year gathering of legal owners of automatic weapons, to shoot.
      There are also Huey rides, an extensive gun show, some competitions, etc.
      the Knob Creek Machine Gun shoot.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiLKA1ZKqZA as an example.

      They were operating the Huey at this fall’s gathering. Saw it flying across the fields, under the tree cover, popping up and hovering, and then diving down to make a fast long low run over across the Ohio River in Indiana, beneath the tree line. Still can’t keep from grinning, watching that. Folks sitting near the door.
      Too bad that your State’s birds had to end the way that they did…but was surely fine training.!

      Incidence of funny Foom?
      Might have been been an SF Guard unit training out in California at a base in the high Sierras, from an east coast mountain/hill state, that was on the demo range all day. Big range. Circular. It was all a range in a bowl of hills. Some teams passed on the training, with other commitments. Too much stuff to take off the range. Decided to blow it all at the end of the day. Piled it all up. 3 minute fuse. Had the soft top….soft top hmvees already running. Hid behind a hill probably too close.
      There was hot stuff, which might have burned some holes through the tops of the hummers….that came down like forever…:) That didn’t get mentioned to the motor pool when turned in and they didn’t notice it either.

      In fact, I think those holes were there already. Who looks at the freaking roof of a military vehicle when checking it out of the motor pool. Yeah, those were already there!

      Range Control guy…(they are usually/can be assholes), came driving across the range from base.
      In certain training places, the range control have been told to stay away from certain units, doing their own training.

      He was laughing, asking if we knew about the 30lb range limit. Huh! Said, “Shook every darned window on the base…(couple of miles away)….and if you do, please call me”.

  9. SemperFido

    Makes me sad that those two old birds got deep sixed. Whenever I stop at some military memorial and they have a demilled huey there I place a hand on it’s nose and say, “Hello old friend.”

  10. bloke_from_ohio

    A retired Viper pilot I worked with has a slightly used ejection seat in a man cave. It was his seat, and he was in it when it was removed via rocket from the aircraft.

    He punch out of his F-16 over the Gulf of Mexico after some sort of malfunction induced him to leave post haste. Some shrimpers dredged up the seat a few months later and brought it to Eglin. Since nearly the entire gulf is used as a training/test range, the local fishermen find “stuff” on a not infrequent basis. Other entertaining recovered hardware includes a mostly intact AIM9 missile body that the base authorities were none to happy about getting back. Regardless, said life saving chair spent the next year or so in a shed until the intrepid aviator’s wife had it restored as a surprise gift.

  11. JAFO

    “that persistent plague that rises up and inhibits the human race from truly taking charge of its God-given mastery of the planet.

    Yes, lawyers.”

    It’s just that we resent the competition.

  12. TBoone

    A well told tale of creative ‘acquisition’. Told by a master story teller. Always appreciated.

    Do such adventures belong in the category of “SF Tom-Foom!-ery?”

  13. Aesop

    A masterfully-told tale, but frankly, I was rather more shocked that you hadn’t constructed two museum-quality papier mache’ replica mock-ups, subsequently destroyed, while the two actual original birds were secreted out under cover of darkness and are now living quiet lives in a couple of New England barns…oh, shoot, sorry, I forget we weren’t supposed to talk about Fight Club!

  14. Ti

    That story is so typical of gov’t working at negative efficiency and positive efficiency at the same time. Great training story. Many man cave pieces there. My order of scavenge would have started with the 8 day clock as numero uno. Remember to grab this as soon as you capture the objective – as in assaulting the enemy’s runway and capturing their airplanes. It removes quickly w crosstip screwdriver and does not hinder the aircraft as “non-operational”. Makes a great deskpiece in mancave. Mag compass second.

  15. William O. B'Livion

    Back in the late 80s we had a CH-53D (IIRC) parked a bit behind the burn pit at New River Air Station.

    One day they dragged it into the burn pit and proceeded to put about a thousand gallons of waste fuel in there.

    My crew was up for training the next week. By that time the 53 was a ~6 inch slab of AL with other alloys mixed in and most of the organics burned off.

    So they poured about a thousand gallons of waste fuel into the pit and lit it up.

    And let it burn for a while before they sent “us” in with only hand lines (simulating a helo down in trees where we couldn’t get our fire trucks).

    Yeah, that worked well.

    “Good Training”.

    If there was anything to anthropogenic global warming that would have been a year without winter :)

    1. Ti

      My brother threw a magnesium VW engine case in a bonfire at Lake McConaughy, NE during a college water ski weekend. He said everyone is standing around the fire imbibing in joy juices, anesthetized, and when the case took off and began to burn, he looked around and now people have moved back a hundred feet away and you can literally see like daytime around the camp ground.

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