June 20, 2007:
The first helicopter flight took
place a century ago this month. The French designers got their chopper off the
ground briefly, and that was about it. It took another three decades before
practical helicopters were ready for regular use. The U.S. sent some of their
newly developed R-4 helicopters to the Pacific in the closing days of World War
II. One of the first missions an R-4 undertook was a medical evacuation in the mountains of Burma during January,
1945. Germany also had good helicopter
designs, but were never able to get many produced. The U.S. produced 400 of
their R-4 model before the war ended, and many reached the combat zone.
It wasn't until a decade later, when the gas
turbine (jet engine) powered UH-1 was designed, that the first truly effective
military helicopter was available. Production began in the late 1950s, and by
the early 1960s, the army was enthusiastically adopting the UH-1 for all sorts
of missions no one had ever considered before.
The Vietnam war put
UH-1 "Hueys" into combat on a huge scale. American UH-1s spent nearly
eight million hours in the air during the Vietnam war. A variation of the UH-1,
the AH-1G's, or "Huey Cobra" gunships, flew over a million hours. Transporting
troops and supplies was the main job for UH-1s, and other helicopters, but
there were about half a million medical evacuation missions, that transported
nearly a million patients.
The Army lost 4,643 helicopters (most of them
UH-1s) during the Vietnam war, only 45 percent because of combat. Another 6,000
were so severely damaged that they required extensive repairs. This was in the
course of flying some 36 million helicopter sorties. Most of these were quite
brief, like just lifting some troops to the other side of a hill (which would
have required many hours to get over on foot). During the most intense period
of Vietnam combat in 1960, there was a daily average of some 2,500 helicopter
When the UH-1 showed up, the biggest fear was that,
if used in the combat zone, they would be very vulnerable to enemy fire. Lots
of helicopters got hit, but only three out of 10,000 flights resulted in
serious damage. Lesser damage occurred more frequently. However, casualties
were relatively light. The 10,000 damaged helicopters resulted in only 3,000
deaths and 2,300 injured. This amounted to less than one injury for each
chopper lost or damaged. When you consider that the war lasted ten years and
that there were always hundreds --and at times over a thousand-- helicopters
assigned to Army aviation units, losing a dozen or so a week was not a
Despite all the risk, troops overwhelmingly
preferred to hop a ride on a Huey, than to go by land. This despite the many
bullet holes and other evidence of enemy attention found in many choppers.
Passengers tended to take this as evidence of how sturdy the Hueys were. .
However, while helicopter units lost fewer pilots than ground units lost
infantry, it was the second riskiest job, after infantry, job in Vietnam.
Since the 1960s, new designs, like the UH-60, have
arrived, and are safer to fly, and more resistant to enemy fire, than the UH-1.
Even so of the 16,000 UH-1s manufactured between 1959 and 1976, several
thousand are still in use.
Today, helicopters are heavily used in Iraq and
Afghanistan, where they are half as likely to be brought down by enemy fire as
were their counterparts in Vietnam. Helicopters are still ungainly looking
beasts, and appear very vulnerable. But in practice, helicopters are sturdy
and, to those who ride them, worth the risks.