Fully restored Hueys a tribute to Vietnam veterans
By Terry Duffy
In tribute to the nation's fallen soldiers on Memorial Day weekend, Youngstown VFW Post 313, in partnership with an Indiana veterans organization, will present a very special program in tribute to veterans both passed and living from the Vietnam War.
Lake Road resident Ray O'Keefe, who recently served as executive director of the Niagara Aerospace Museum, reported he has teamed up with Post 313 to have the American Huey 369 Museum of Indiana bring fully restored and operational Huey Vietnam-era helicopters to Fort Niagara State Park next weekend.
"This event will not only be an exhibit of this iconic helicopter, but it will have the ability to take persons for flights," O'Keefe said.
This special event, just one part of the Old Fort Niagara "Soldiers Through the Ages" program taking place May 28-29, will see one, possibly two fully restored and operational Hueys on site. The Hueys are expected to fly-in Friday afternoon, May 27, and be on display with special rides offered throughout the weekend.
O'Keefe said the effort is intended to bring a greater acknowledgment and praise to the veterans of the Vietnam War era - a dedicated group of servicemen and women he and local resident Ted Jackson called forgotten, often despised, when they returned to this country in the late '60s and early '70s from the long and unpopular war.
"It's a healing kind of thing," O'Keefe said of the new Vietnam inclusion to the fort's "Soldiers Through the Ages."
"It's about honoring veterans," added Jackson, who is assisting O'Keefe in the effort.
O'Keefe said the program will, indeed, be special, in that it will feature a fully restored and operational Vietnam-era vintage Bell UH-1 Iroquois No. 803 helicopter - with Buffalo ties. Rides will be offered to the roughly 30 American Huey members expected. And that unique offering - rides in the iconic Huey, open doors and all - will also be available to those who wish to join this select Vietnam vets group. Membership cost is $100 - and you do not have to be a veteran to join.
So what of this vintage Bell Huey?
"The Niagara Aerospace Museum donated it to the group of people who are restoring helicopters" of the Vietnam era, O'Keefe said. "They're from Peru, Indiana, and the name of their organization is American Huey 369."
O'Keefe explained that, following closure of the Aviation School at Burgard High School in Buffalo, the Aerospace Museum acquired the helicopter, which had been used for training purposes. The '60s-era helicopter was in rough shape, having sat outside in a field near the Buffalo International Airport.
"They (Burgard) donated this to us; we were going to use it as a gate guardian as we developed the (downtown Niagara Falls) museum further. Then the Senecas came in with the casino and we were displaced," O'Keefe said. "The handwriting was on the wall; we weren't going to be there anymore."
O'Keefe said that, soon after, the Niagara Aerospace group would undergo a series of moves over the years. It is now located at 2221 Niagara Falls Blvd., Suite 7, adjacent to the Niagara Falls International Airport. For more information, visit www.wnyaerospace.org or call 716-297-1323.
Recalling the beginning of his association with the Huey 369 group, O'Keefe continued, "These folks showed up at our door at the Aerospace Museum one day with a trailer. On the back ... they had a Huey. It was an old Huey, tail No. 369.
"Two brothers, John and Allen Walker ... with four Army guys, stopped by and started asking us about creating a museum - the national American Huey Museum."
O'Keefe noted the Niagara Aerospace Museum, which highlights the extensive history of the aviation industry in Buffalo and Western New York, also contained a wealth of information on helicopters - many of which were manufactured at area Bell plants. He proceeded to share much of that with the Huey visitors.
"We hit it up; they were impressed," O'Keefe said.
With the Aerospace Museum facing relocation, O'Keefe said he approached the Aerospace board with a proposal.
" 'Why don't we give that Huey to that group of people? They are so passionate; they are all about honoring veterans,' " O'Keefe said.
Following a unanimous vote by the Aerospace board, O'Keefe again made contact with the Huey 369 group. They were flabbergasted.
"I approached John (Walker) ... he almost fell off his chair when he heard what we were trying to do," O'Keefe said.
Roughly a year later, following the Huey donation, O'Keefe said he visited the group and the now-restored Huey. "It looked like it just come off the assembly line," he said of the once-decrepit Huey in the Buffalo field. "It just was perfect. Every rivet, all the interior, it was beautiful."
O'Keefe said the Huey group began travelling the country, taking the Buffalo copter on a trailer from veterans event to veterans event. The restoration was extensive: a rebuilt engine, turbine, all rebuilt by veterans nationally who heard about the project.
"Veterans with tremendous skills put in their efforts," O'Keefe said.
He estimated the value of the older donated Buffalo Huey at a quarter-million dollars. "And what these guys did to it ... it's unbelievable."
O'Keefe said the Huey 369 group has taken the helicopter to a host of veterans events throughout the country. "Miracle after miracle has happened" with that helicopter, he said.
The latest being the return of the vintage helicopter to area skies next weekend. "It is now back flying in Western New York," O'Keefe said, adding that, come next week, when you hear the "thud-thud" of its rotors, it'll make your skin tingle.
Parking will be free for this unique event at Fort Niagara State Park for those wishing to view the Hueys, with regular admission charged at the OFN "Soldiers Through the Ages" programs. For more information and a complete schedule, visit www.oldfortniagra.org.
For more information on the Hueys at Fort Niagara, visit their page on Facebook or email [email protected].