In the Shadow of the Blade

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

Living on military bases during the Vietnam War you got to see and hear many types of aircraft. The one aircraft that captured my interest then and now was the UH-1 Huey helicopter. You could not turn on the TV nightly news back then without seeing film footage of an Army or Marine Huey flying to some "hot" landing zone, off loading combat troops or up loading the wounded and dead.

The classic scene of a Huey was of the door gunner firing his M-60 machinegun as the helicopter flew over a rice paddy. This scene played out on the news and was copied in almost every Vietnam War movie Hollywood has made of that South East Asian conflict.

I lived in Charleston, South Carolina in the late 1960s and there was an aircraft maintenance plant there that did nothing but rebuild thousands of Huey aircraft engines every year. Even without getting shot-up by the enemy, with all the hours a Huey flew, the wear and tear on that helicopter was horrendous.

I have parachute jump wings. Over the years people would see them on my uniform and make the typical comment about how they would never jump out of a perfectly good airplane. I would then explain I have never jumped out of an airplane. All my parachute jumps were from helicopters and my very first jump was out the right side of a Huey.

Did you know you can not jump out of a falling helicopter? If you do you will fall slower than the helicopter and the rotor blade will give you an extremely bad headache.

A friend of mine who was the lead aircraft commander on the now famous "Blackhawk Down" situation in Mogadishu, Somalia was visiting me in Albuquerque, New Mexico and told me about a documentary film he had helped make about a Vietnam era Huey. The film makers had found an old non-flying Huey and brought it back to life. They were able to reconstruct the flying history of the Huey and then set about finding people connected to that history. This included former aircrew members, people both military and civilian who had been rescued by the Huey and family & friends of people who did not make it back alive.

The documentary "In the Shadow of the Blade" ( was the result of all the work. While I was still living in New Mexico the documentary was presented to the public for only the second time at a theater in Albuquerque, as a fund raiser for the first Vietnam Memorial at Angle Fire, New Mexico (

I took my wife and then 10 year old daughter. The theater was filled with Vietnam veterans. In the film the Huey was flown from the east coast to the west coast, stopping along the way to visit and take for flights survivors of that Asian war.

One story was about a female Vietnamese baby who was rescue and flown to safety aboard the Huey. She was later adopted by an American family and now lives with her own family in the U.S.

There were stops along the way with parents and family members of soldiers who, even with the efforts of the Huey aircrew, did not make it home alive. These family members took rides on the aircraft as a way to help with closure in their lives, as well as the short lives of those killed in action.

As a young Air Force Lieutenant I was a student at the Army Infantry School, at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Part of our training was learning air-assault operations. We were loaded on Hueys with all our weapons and field gear and inserted into a training-combat exercise. I still remember the thrill of my first ride in a UH-1. I can not even begin to relate to what the family members of our fallen comrades were experiencing when they took their ride in the wonderful restored flying machine.

After seeing the movie a UH-1 flew over our house and my daughter looked at me and said "That's a Huey, Dad". While my daughter does not know the difference in all the models of helicopters, she can pick out a Huey anytime one passes over her. You can not watch "In the Shadow of the Blade" and come away without a good feeling for that venerable, old flying workhorse. The documentary is now on DVD. Aim High, and God Bless the Huey!

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Copyright 2005, 2013 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.