War in Vietnam was the first war where a new kind of aircraft was used on such a wide scale. Since the early 1950s, experiences from Korean War proved that helicopters should share their fair portion in air warfare and no other conflict confirmed it better than Vietnam War.
The enemy didn’t fight in conventional ways, making the US forces develop new tactics and strategies. The battleground itself also wasn’t something that American soldiers used to – omnipresent jungle, tropical monsoon climate, humidity beyond reason.
Visibility in the thick woods of Vietnam was extremely low. The infrastructure was almost not existing. Adding to that a ubiquitous booby trap, constant stress and sense of danger made any advancement on foot slow and risky. Some rocks and trees were even talking…
Under those circumstances, the ground forces were in dire need of support. They wanted something that could fly on low attitudes, slow if needed, or even able to stop mid-air. Something that could also land and take-off fast and in adverse terrain. The answer for that was a helicopter.
However, jack of all trades is a master of none. Not a single aircraft could fulfill all the roles that were necessary for conducting various kinds of operations. Below, we present you a palette of the US helicopters used in the Vietnam War.
UH-1 Iroquois “Huey”
The best known and most mass-produced was the famous Huey. Around 7,000 UH-1 were deployed in Nam from 1962 till the end of the war. That’s More than 60% of all helicopters used in that conflict, making it literally iconic. Invented for evacuation purposes only, it quickly was modified into several more variants. Some were used for transportation and medical evacuation and due to the lack of weapon pods nicknamed Slicks. Gunships were Hogs and Frogs if with rockets, or Cobras and Guns if just with guns.
AH-1 Cobra was a younger sibling of Huey. Also using the same engine, transmission, and rotor system, it was often referred to simply as Snake. However, this sleek machine wasn’t as universal as Huey – it was just an attack helicopter. Cobra was the one who made the concept of air cavalry alive.
They were often supporting ground troops and escorting unarmed helicopters from point to point. With this, the Huey family was getting bigger and more influential. US Army loved it so much that it was the backbone of its flying fleet for decades. Based on its design several more versions were created.
Marine Corps heard about AH-1 Cobra and tested a few examples in 1969. Then, they were jealous. They wanted Cobra too, but better. The navalized version was supposed to have more firepower, thus featuring XM197 electric cannon and six-barrel, air-cooled M61 Vulcan cannon.
However, its main upgrade was a twin-engine due to safety reasons while flying over the water. SuperCobra was the main attack helicopter of the USMC for the next 30 years.
UH-1N Twin Huey
Huey’s fame crossed the borders quickly. Canadian Forces also seek a multirole helicopter so they adapted already existing Huey into their needs.
They were flying with the 20th Special Operations Squadron from the late 1970s. Similar to USMC, they wanted a twin-engine version, capable of carrying 15 men in total. Later on, UH-1N Twin Huey was developed into a civilian version known as Bell 212.
In the 1960s, the helicopters had come of age and experience. The Navy ordered a compact and fast helicopter for transportation and anti-submarine missions. Kaman Aircraft Corporation developed SH-2 Seasprite for that purpose. During the Vietnam Era, Seasprites were often performing rescue missions in the East Indochina area.
CH-3 Sea King
Sea King was designed to operate from naval vessels, thus in order to make them more compact, foldable main rotor blades were present. The hull was also amphibious, and the helicopter was able to take off from the water directly. Along with a new threat from Soviet Union, it was designated to combat enemy submarines, but with time it acquired more tasks. Eight VH-3AVIP versions were built, better known as Marine One if the POTUS was on board.
This little fellow is the smallest from the set, and while was used for transport, escort, and attack missions, its main role was an observation. In 1966, OH-6 set 23 world records for helicopters in various fields, including speed, climbing, and endurance.
The CIA was also interested in “Loach” (nicknamed after acronym Light Observation Helicopter) and had a few heavily upgraded versions in various top-secret missions. After several modifications, it was dubbed “The Quiet One” and became the quietest helicopter ever.
A pair was sent to Vietnam, one was lost, while the second conducted intelligence missions, most notably wiretapping near Vinh during one night in December 1972. That mission, in which OH-6 traveled virtually the entire width of Vietnam, gained valuable information for the upcoming Operation Linebacker II.
The role of reconnaissance helicopter before Cayuse was up to Sioux. OH-13 was operational in 1945 and as a veteran of the Korean War, it wasn’t meeting the modern requirements in the late 1960s. Not less famous than the Huey, we all saw it in action as medievac helicopter in M.A.S.H. tv series.
The role of transporting cargo and large amounts of supplies were given to CH-21. This multi-role helicopter saw extensive use in Nam, often equipped not just with wheels, but skis and floats too! Several attempts were made to turn “Flying Banana” into gunships, and there was plenty of space for that.
The biggest flaw of Shawnee was that it was designed to fly in an extremely cold environment (for operations at temperatures as low as −54 °C/−65 °F), thus performed poorly in the humid and hot climate of East Asia.
Out of 20 passenger seats, usually only 9 were full. Pilots reported that the supposed engine’s longevity of 600 hours in normal circumstances was decreased to 200 hours in the Vietnam environment. Despite all of that, CH-21 wasn’t withdrawn from the US arsenal till 1965, when Chinooks arrived.
Back in the day, Mojave was the largest helicopter in the West when it entered service and was one of the last heavies to use piston engines. Only four CH-37B were sent to Vietnam in the mid-1960. Their role was to recover heavy equipment and they were excellent at this task! In total, those four Mojave retrieved military material of total worth 7,5 million US dollars.
Built by Kaman, Huskie was serving for the United Stated for 20 years. Nicknamed “Pedro”, in the years 1966-1970 in Nam, HH-43 Huskie conducted a total of 888 rescue missions, which is more than all other aircraft combined during that war. Although other branches flew Huskies too, its main user was the Army. Due to its extraordinary hovering ability, it was invaluable in firefighting and rescue missions.
CH-46 Sea Knight
It was the US Marine Corps’ main transport helicopter of the war, as being something in between the UH-1 and CH-53. Sea Knights performed rather poorly, prone to malfunctions, and troubled by technical problems overall. The biggest flaw was the engine that couldn’t even reach the lifespan of 90 hours and was vulnerable to small damage, f.ex. from debris.
It was a subject of serious investigation in the years 1965-67 after a series of crashes and accidents, grounding them all immediately. Some even disintegrated in midair. They returned to active duty in early 1972 after the necessary modifications.
Among the heaviest lifting helicopters was Chinook, and flying as the standard medium transport helicopter for the Army. Originally defenseless, the crew quickly added some M-60 machine guns wherever possible to increase their rate of survival when CH-47 arrived in Nam in 1965.
How much could it carry? Over 3,200 kg, with an additional 400kg when near the coast. One of its most epic operations was to plant artillery batteries in otherwise inaccessible positions and keep them supplied. Later on, more improved and powerful versions were introduced, some successfully turning into gunships.
CH-53 Sea Stallion
Arriving late in Vietnam, CH-53 had its baptism of fire in 1967. Often used for recovering downed aircraft, it even surpassed CH-54 in this role. Its use was critical to Operation Frequent Wind when more than 7,000 people were evacuated by helicopters.
Lifting heavier material in tropical climate require more power, thus Sea Stallion found extensive use not only by all military branches in the US, but later on in Grenada, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Germany, and Austria. Over 1,200 were built and they are still in service.
HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant
Special operations and Search and Rescue missions in Nam required something special, thus USAF ordered long-range HH-53 to replace HH-3E Jolly Green Giant. This very modern-looking machine was nicknamed oddly the same as its replacement but adding prefix “Super Jolly”.
It quickly became famous after Operation Ivory Coast (POWs rescue mission in North Vietnam), which was unsuccessful, yet HH-53 proved their worth. They were able to fly low, far, undetected, during daylight or night, and were sturdy against unfavorable weather. Their last mission occurred in 2008, after which they were retired.
As its nickname suggests, “The Crane” was a heavy-lift helicopter. Used in Nam for transportation and retrieval, Tarhe was also used as a bomber on several occasions.
With great lifting capabilities it also has been used with anti-sub warfare, med operations, troop/weapon transport, etc. With a pod mounted, it was able to carry up to 45 troops. They are still flying for civilian companies as S-64 Skycrane.
Kiowas were sent to South Vietnam in 1969 as a replacement for the observation and utility role of OH-6A, but they ended up cooperating till the end of the war. In total, ~45 OH-58A were lost for the length of the war.
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