Damn, the U.S. State Department’s Huey Helicopters Are Getting Old
The Diplomatic Air Wing is still flying Vietnam War-era choppers
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Throughout 2016, the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. Air Force have hotly debated what to do with the U.S. Air Force’s increasingly unreliable Vietnam War-era UH-1N Twin Huey helicopters. But there’s another part of the U.S. government still flying many more — and older — Hueys.
The State Department has more than 100 of the choppers. In April 2016, the department announced plans to once again hire contractors to repair, potentially overhaul and otherwise keep in the air approximately 120 UH-1 helicopters.
Clearly wanting to know what it might be getting into, one prospective company asked for a list of serial numbers for all of these choppers.
“This information is not readily available,” the officials in charge of the plan responded, according to a table of questions and answers. “The Department’s fleet of single and twin engine UH-1 helicopters was manufactured between 1966 and 1974.”
Dated Dec. 2, 2016, the document does not say what company made the inquiry. We don’t know whether or not the firm found the age of the choppers — or State’s record keeping — shocking.
One thing is clear, the choppers are getting old.
Though not widely publicized, the State Department has had its own surprisingly big air arm since the 1970s. Tucked away inside the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs — a.k.a., INL — the Diplomatic Air Wing has dozens of helicopters and small fixed-wing planes.
Contractors fly and fix the various types everywhere from the Air Wing’s headquarters at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida to small bases stretching from Latin America to Central Asia. From Colombia to Afghanistan, the privately-operated, but government-owned fleet shuttles diplomats around, works with local troops and police to hunt drug cartels and is on call in case of emergencies.
INL “equipment, aircraft and personnel operate from forward operating base locations under primitive conditions and … from international airports with the most advanced navigational aids,” another contract document explained. Sometimes “the aircraft and crews are subject to … hostile fire.”
So, in many situations, it’s vitally important that the aircraft be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, that’s immediately complicated by the age and variety of the planes and choppers.
Most of INL’s aircraft have come second-hand from the Pentagon or other sources. This might be one of the reason for State’s record-keeping problems.
It does explain why many of INL’s aircraft are so old.
Looking for additional aircraft, State rushed in to scoop up CH-46E Sea Knights after the Marine Corps replaced the twin-engine choppers with MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors in the mid-2000s. Boeing had rebuilt earlier D models to come up with the E version starting in 1978.
But by far, INL’s most numerous and oldest helicopters are its Hueys. As of 2016, contract pilots were flying at least three different types.
Around 30 of these were twin-engine UH-1Ns — identical to the Air Force’s dated choppers — and Model 214STs. Bell Helicopter introduced both of these types as more powerful replacements for the original, single-engine Huey. Though descended from the original chopper, the 214ST has a completely different and significantly larger fuselage design.
The balance were UH-1Hs of some variation. In 1966, Bell cooked up this version by simply installing a more powerful engine, an improved drive chain and larger rotors on an existing Huey frame.
The image of these choppers schlepping American troops around the battlefield became iconic of the Vietnam War. For decades, with help from the Pentagon in many cases, Bell sold thousands of the helicopters to military groups, police departments and private customers all over the world.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Army started replacing its Hueys with larger and more capable UH-60 Black Hawks. State was one of many parties to pick up dozens of still-useful UH-1s, already kitted out with sensors to warn the crew of incoming surface-to-air missiles and decoy flares.
INL subsequently upgraded many of these choppers to Huey IIs. In 2003, Bell began offering this package to anyone with old UH-1Hs.
Under the deal, Bell would effectively rebuild the choppers. The improvements included an updated engine, new electronic gear and improved safety features.
The Fort Worth-based aviation company could add other systems during the process on request. At some point, many of State’s UH-1s got side-firing weapon mounts for M-240 machine guns or blistering-fast Miniguns.
But it’s not clear how many of the choppers the Air Wing sent off to get the improvements. In January 2013, State had at least eight unmodified UH-1Hs in Bolivia.
The 2016 contract only mentions the “UH-1H-II,” but earlier records simply referred to “single-engine UH-1s.” Making matters more complicated, there are few definite visual clues to quickly discern if a chopper is one version or another.
The answer to the contractor’s question in December 2016 suggested State might not know for sure itself. With the various upgrades, modifications and overhauls, any chopper’s original production date becomes virtually meaningless.
“We do not anticipate any additional UH-1-type helicopters added to this contract,” State’s contract officers noted in response to another question, implying the fleet would be relatively static in size and composition for the next year.
Whatever the case, we can expect the old, but durable Hueys to keep flying for years to come. In 2010, State made plans to buy brand new Sikorsky S-61 helicopters.
As of July 2015, nearly two-thirds of them were sitting in storage, unused, because of delays in training and other issues. The next month, a State Department spokesperson assured War Is Boring the rest of the S-61s would be in action by January 2016.
At the same time, though, the aging UH-1s were still soldiering on in six different countries.