Lancaster County veterans group restoring Vietnam-era helicopter; get $10,000 boost from Williams

A group in Lancaster County hopes to bring a piece of history back to life, and they’re one step closer thanks to a $10,000 Atlantic Sunrise Community Grant.

Vietnam War veterans will be able to take a trip back in time in once The Liberty War Birds, a Lititz-based group of veterans who specialize in restoring Vietnam-era helicopters, are finished with their renovation of a 1966 HUEY 823 helicopter.

For everyone on board with the War Birds, there’s a new mission to execute: restore a “Huey,” the iconic UH-1 helicopter that defined America’s presence in Vietnam, and return it to the skies. The group hopes that one day the restored helicopter will be a touchstone for local Vietnam War veterans.

“How great would it be to take this to the Coatesville VA center and deliver Thanksgiving dinner to the veterans there?” Michael Caimi, vice president of the Liberty War Birds, said.

Caimi and a team volunteers gather each weekend in a hangar at the Lancaster Airport where they’ve been working on the aircraft since April 2015. Lead crew chief Kevin Schnetzka showed off the ongoing project during a tour last year, and said nearly everything on board is original to when it was built and used in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1970. Even the nose art has been restored to its original design by a fortuitous resource — Vietnam veteran Russ Mowry, who was the Huey 283’s pilot at one time and painted original nose art on the unit’s fleet of helicopters.

Jim Haga, president and founding member the Liberty War Birds, said the group was overjoyed last summer when Mowry came to see his old chopper. While in Carlisle, Pa., during Army Heritage Days at the U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center Mowry repainted the nose with a fire-breathing dragon and a curvy, bikini-clad woman to signify the chopper’s call signs, “The Flying Dragons” and “The Bikinis.”

The Huey is already drawing veterans together, Haga said. They gather inside the hangar to share stories. Some sit silently, quietly observant of the project unfolding before them.

There’s no telling when it will get back in the air — the group projects the complete restoration will cost about $475,000. They’ve successfully raised more than $200,000 so far, and the group received another big financial boost during the sixth round of the Atlantic Sunrise Community Grant program.

Williams awarded $42,300 in grant money to a number of Lancaster County groups during the fall grant cycle. The Liberty War Birds received a $10,000 grant, designed to go towards buying a new engine for the helicopter — a significant step toward taking flight again.

“To see us be able to help them accomplish their mission, it’s very important,” Joe Horvath, spokesperson for Williams, said.

The Huey 823 is a trip in a time machine for the many veterans who see the helicopter up close. For them, it’s the unmistakable sound of an era. It’s not easy, Haga said, but for many veterans, hearing the iconic helicopter fly and seeing it up close is a way to help them cope with their post-traumatic stress disorders.

“Probably the last time they saw this helicopter was a bad memory for them, likely being Medivac’d out of the country. They walk in this hangar door and it’s instant tears,” Schnetzka said. “They step inside this helicopter and they turn to all smiles. We’ll come up to them and by the time they leave here and they’re telling stories their families probably never heard.”

The group has even enlisted the help of PTSD therapist and Vietnam veteran Alexis Lake, who talks to some of the veterans who visit the hangar.

“The Huey gets them talking. It’s a starting point, and a touchstone for a generation who came home and didn’t have anyone to talk to about what happened,” Lake said. “When Vietnam vets came home, we were told, don’t tell your stories. The stories may be buried, but the emotions are always filtering up. We want this to be a project that begins the healing.”

Applications are currently being accepted for the next round of Atlantic Sunrise Community Grants. Applications for this round of grants must be submitted by March 1.