Culver veteran's work with iconic Vietnam copters as much mission as hobby

Tom Schmidt, of Culver, stands in front of one of the ‘Huey’ helicopters operated by the American Huey 369 organization of which he’s a part, at a recent event in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
By: 
Jeff Kenney
Citizen editor

Tom Schmidt of Culver is clearly passionate about his work with the American Huey 369 Museum in Peru, but not just for the reasons one might assume.

Huey helicopters (technically the Bell UH-1 Iroquois) were first developed in the 1950s as medical evacuation and utility choppers, but became most famous during the Vietnam War (during which some were outfitted as combat copters as well). Particularly given their use, Hueys hold a significant place in the memories of many veterans of that conflict, especially those who recall being flown away by the 'birds' with wounds or other injuries.

Hueys were, says Schmidt, medium-type helicopters and relatively inexpensive as aircraft go. Around 8,500 were sent to Vietnam, with only roughly 2,000 returning.

"Some of the landing zones were created simply by dropping a blockbuster bomb in the jungle," he explains. "That would clear out enough space to set the Huey in."

Schmidt, who retired from teaching at Culver Comm. High School in 2010, served in 1969 and 1970 in Vietnam. He had been in the Aviation Maintenance program at Purdue and went through basic training after being called into service, eventually finding himself stationed in Korea. There he worked on Hueys as a crew chief, making sure the copters were ready to go at all times.

The road to the Huey Museum for Schmidt began a few years before his retirement ("I was definitely not going to sit on my derriere," he says of his post-retirement life) when his son Jon -- having heard the rumor of a group flying Hueys as a veteran's organization -- arranged for a flight for Tom as a Father's Day present.

"With my position in Korea I had worked on and sent out to other units probably 150 aircraft," he says. "I wanted to go up and see if (the chopper being flown) might have been mine.

"I turned in my money to become a lifetime member (of American Huey 369) and I have just stayed with them."

The organization is based at the Grissom Aeroplex near Peru, Indiana, where a group called Montgomery Aviation donated some hangar space for two Hueys currently owned by the museum.

"The manpower it takes to keep those things flying is enormous," says Schmidt. "The military figured it takes 16 hours of maintenance for every flight hour. And that's in a military situation where sometimes maintenance wasn't perfect."

Schmidt himself is one of the museum volunteers who handles a good amount of maintenance on the Hueys there, since he's qualified and experienced at the job. The main maintenance supervisor for the organization, he says, is Dick Hosmer of Huston, Texas, whom Schmidt describes as "a Godsend." The group is headed by John Walker, who helped found it.

Parts for the organization's Hueys "have been grabbed from anywhere and everywhere," explains Schmidt, noting the cost just to change a set of the helicopters' blades is $180,000 per set.
The three choppers owned by the group were "basically wrecks" and had to be painstakingly put together by swapping and purchasing parts, and via countless hours of labor, some of which could only be handled by nationally qualified entities out of state.

And for those who might wonder, the copters in use by the organization actually saw combat, affirms Schmidt.

"These birds were in 'Nam," he says. ''They have their scars, and you can see the patches on them. They're veterans too."

HITTING THE ROAD

The flying and appearance schedule for American Huey 369 keeps Schmidt and other volunteers busy (and one of those regulars is Schmidt's son, the aforementioned Jon, who sometimes involves the World War II era military Jeep he owns, and which is regularly seen in Culver Lake Fest parades each summer, in the re-enactments in which the Hueys participate).

"Last year I was gone 20 weekends for flying events," Tom Schmidt explains. "This year we cut the schedule back to 16 or 17. We're getting so many requests...but it takes 20 to 24 people to effectively run the entire operation," from registration to prep teams for those preparing to fly, to of course the crew involved with flights themselves.

"You can't do it without a good support system," he adds.

The cost of each flight is $100 per person, excluding honor flights offered free to veterans. The cost just to keep each Huey running is $10 per minute for fuel alone, Schmidt notes.

The organization's schedule of appearances can be found online at www.americanhuey369.com/EVENTS.htm. Upcoming events in this region include a July 25 "Honoring Our Heroes" event at Wabash, Ind., a "homecoming" of sorts for the group at Grissom Aeroplex in Peru, Ind., August 8 and 9 (for the 9th Annual American Huey 369 Gathering of Veterans & Patriots), and a Sept. 12 "Rotors Over Mentone" event at Mentone, Indiana.

THE MISSION BEHIND THE MISSION

And while the maintenance work and flying itself are surely gratifying for all involved (which, by the way, includes both veterans of the Vietnam and other conflicts, and "patriot" minded civilians who wish to help out, says Schmidt), there's a far more impactful reason many of those involved stay so.

"If you're going to ask (those who are Vietnam vets) why we're there doing this," he says, "we probably can't come up with reason one except, that's where we're supposed to be. This is our mission."

As an example of what drives them, Schmidt refers to a flight in mid-July to Connecticut to meet a terminal veteran who included getting back on a Huey on his "last wish" bucket list. The man in question, says Schmidt, "kind of wants to smooth things out" from his Vietnam experience, by way of his Huey ride.

"That's why we fly," he adds.

The endeavor takes on deeper meaning in light of the famously controversial nature stateside of the Vietnam War, which led to marginalization of many veterans, both during and long after the war itself. And while veterans of any war historically struggle, in some instances, to come to grips with their combat experiences and find a path to a balanced civilian life, it's well known that the problem has often proved even more challenging for veterans of a war many Americans sought to forget or disdain.

"People are welcoming at the (Huey) events," Schmidt notes, "but you still get people who turn their noses up a little bit. But it has changed a lot and that's the reason, as 'Nam vets, we are definitely happy to see the 'Welcome home' signs for current veterans."

Perhaps events like a "Lest We Forget" day last month at the airport in Benton Harbor, Michigan, are indicators of the change. That weekend's roster was centered around the Vietnam War, and besides American Huey 369 and its choppers on-site for flights and simply to be seen, a host of equipment, vehicles, re-created camps (both of US and Vietnamese forces), and more were set up. The day also included a re-enactment scenario from the war in which a downed pilot was rescued by US forces, including Hueys, planes, ground vehicles, and even a ground trooper with working flame-thrower.

Those involved with American Huey 369 maintain a constant awareness of the demographic likely most affected by encountering the helicopters, which after all aren't something most people -- regardless of age or experience -- bump into on a regular basis in civilian life.

"We've had guys in counseling whose counselors told them that these birds do more good than all the counseling the world," says Schmidt. "We've had so many reports back from daughters, sons, and wives that basically said, 'We didn't realize how much (trauma from the war) he's been holding in. He's a different man now (after the flight).' And by the way, this includes auxiliary personnel like nurses and doctors who had to watch young men die and there was nothing they can do about it. If we find some of these people, they get honor flights if that's at all possible."

One veteran from Culver (since deceased), says Schmidt, climbed inside one of the Hueys and remarked, "So that's what it looks like." When his wife and daughters objected that he'd flown in one before, he replied that all he'd seen of the chopper in the past was its ceiling (since he was lying on his back, injured).

"There are sons and daughters still living with (emotional scars from the war)," Schmidt says, recalling one veteran's son from Ohio who asked the American Huey 369 crew to fly over his father's grave so he (the son) could shoot a photo of the grave with the Huey in the background. The son subsequently had t-shirts created with the resulting image, in honor of his father.

Vietnam vets, as well as those from other wars and conflicts including more recent ones in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and others, are given honor flights whenever possible.

"It’s not a (recreational) ride" for many people, Schmidt says. "We're always very much aware of who gets on.

"That's why the ladies (group volunteers) in the registration tent at our event are Godsends," he adds. "A lot of times they can do things with people -- the men as well as wives and daughters -- that we can't do. Believe me when you're hurting there's nothing better than a soft touch, and care.

"Sometimes when we're hot and dead tired and our feet hurt, and then somebody comes up (to look at a Huey) and says, 'I just wanted to see where my son died,' you say, 'Now what was I just complaining about?'"

"I don't know if that's a mission statement," he reflects, but stories like those above may come as close as anything to summarizing the central mission of the organization.

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