We hear it first –
that distinctive “whop-whop” some Vietnam veterans
say they can recognize from miles away. As the sound
approaches, excitement ripples through the waiting group
of veterans and their families at the riverside cookout.
This will be the first time most of the vets will have
been close to a UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter
since their tours in Vietnam more than 30 years ago.
The documentary cameras are ready, but landing is
uncertain. This small blueberry patch on the bank of the
tree-lined Chattahoochee River has barely enough
clearance for the long body and 40-foot blades of the
big Huey helicopter on its way.
A volunteer fires a flare into the sky to help the
flight crew find the landing zone, or LZ. The
“whop-whop” sound swells as the Huey, restored to
the original army-green colors of its service in
Vietnam, appears low over the trees. It circles slowly
again and again, kicking up a flurry of autumn leaves as
veteran pilots size up the tight LZ – one they
wouldn’t have thought twice about three decades ago.
Word comes over the radio to the ground crew –
they’re going to try it. The Huey makes one more slow
pass, lining itself up with the clearing in the trees.
As the helicopter slowly lowers, the blades whip
treetops into a frenzy and send a tornado of dirt and
leaves into the air. Watchers brace themselves against
the powerful gale and overwhelming noise, shielding
faces from the sting of flying debris as hearts race
wildly. Hand signals from ground personnel correct the
helicopter’s careful descent by feet and inches,
nudging body and tail into the tight space – and the
powerful machine is on the ground.
The Huey landing near Fairview on Monday was filmed
for “In the Shadow of the Blade,” a full-length
feature documentary being produced by filmmaker Pat
Fries of Austin, Texas. The documentary’s goal is to
capture stories from and about veterans who flew,
maintained or were rescued by the Army’s UH-1 Iroquois
“Huey” helicopter in Vietnam.
Unique to this project, a restored UH-1D, tail number
65-10091, is being flown around the country to interview
veterans for the film. During the war, the Huey served
the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company, the Robin Hoods
The flight crew said landing on the river bottom
property of Marine Corps veteran Larry Hancock was their
most challenging LZ to date.
“It takes one hell of a lot of skill,” said
helicopter co-pilot Jim Palmersheim, a captain with
American Airlines. “Coming into an LZ like this is
about as close as you want to cut it.”
“It was a crew effort to get it down,” said
helicopter pilot Mike Vennable, a captain with Southwest
Airlines. “It brings back memories ... the smell of
jet fuel, the camaraderie – it’s like I just woke up
from 33 years of sleep.”
For veterans present, the landing was an awesome
“It was highly emotional,” said Hancock, a folk
artist who flew as a door gunner on Hueys during the
Vietnam war. “It rekindled some dead memories that had
been locked away for years and years and years.”
“I have mixed feelings,” said Hayward Dyer of
Alto. Dyer was a senior helicopter mechanic for the
Robin Hoods and likely worked on this Huey during his
tour. “I thank the Lord I’m here to see something
like this. I think of the guys who are not here ...
I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Dyer brought photographs, original documents and
other memorabilia to share. “It puts you to thinking
about the times.... It’s emotional when you start
thinking about the people you got to know and worked
with, and when they got killed.”
“I’ve had my hands full,” said flight crew
member the Rev. Bill McDonald, who is offering spiritual
counseling and emotional support to fellow veterans
along the flight. “I’ve counseled, held hands with,
prayed with people on every stop we’ve come to.”
McDonald said the documentary is opening up the
healing process for many people. “But it’s important
that people find follow-up help after we leave,” he
That evening, the riverside gathering of veterans
witnessed a special moment as Hancock and his wife Patty
renewed their vows in the candle-lit Huey, officiated by
McDonald. The couple exchanged white roses, symbolic of
pure love. The bride wore a traditional Vietnamese
wedding dress described by those present as
After sunset, Col. and Mrs. Ben Purcell of
Clarkesville sat inside the Huey to talk about his time
as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for the documentary.
Shot down in a Huey and captured, Purcell spent much of
his five years in captivity in solitary confinement.
“But my wife had it much rougher,” he told the
Fries, the film’s director, said later that you
could hear a pin drop as Col. Purcell pulled out a
suitcase filled with the items he’d kept since his
days in captivity.
“What I know is that only a few things are
important,” said Purcell. “Love of God, love of your
fellow man, love of your country. And freedom. Freedom
Sunrise Tuesday morning revealed a new addition to
the Huey. Inspired by Purcell’s moving testimony,
Hancock spent the early morning hours alone at the river
painting the POW/MIA symbol on the Huey’s side, along
with his artwork’s two hallmark images: the White Dog
“I think the POW/MIA symbol is totally
appropriate,” Fries said after filming the artist’s
final touches to his work.
Later that morning, the Huey “pulled pitch” away
from the LZ with two special guests on board, Hancock
Hancock was thrilled at the last-minute offer to ride
the Huey to the Toccoa airport for refueling. Purcell,
on the other hand, had been anticipating for more than a
month his ride to Richmond Academy in Augusta, the
helicopter’s next LZ.
“I’d never dreamed of having the opportunity to
do something like this,” Purcell said. “I’ve had a
month of relishing the thought of it.”
The best part, he said, will be the end of the flight
when he meets his wife in Augusta – the same city
where the couple was reunited in 1973 after five and 1/2
years of being apart. “I can hardly wait,” he said.
Updates and stories of the Huey’s travels over the
next few months can be found at www.intheshadowoftheblade.com.
Also, those wishing to contact McDonald for counseling
can e-mail him at Angelnet@citlink.net.
For inspirational stories by fellow veterans, visit www.vietnamexp.com.
The crew stressed that the only way they could do
this documentary is with the generous sponsorship of
DynCorp, U.S. Helicopters, CFC Aviation and many others.
“These companies are doing it out of the goodness of
their hearts,” said Palmersheim.
Fries plans to market “In the Shadow of the
Blade” to HBO, which should air the program sometime