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Valley veterans complete restoration of Vietnam-era helicopter they flew in

Posted: 6:10 PM, Sep 26, 2019
Updated: 2019-09-26 22:47:36-04

PHOENIX — A group of veterans in northern Arizona are breathing new life into an old war hero. Getting down and dirty to refurbish one of the Vietnam wars most revered choppers. The project has been under way for almost a year and Thursday, they put the finishing touches on their passion project.

“It’s one of us, it got us home,” said former 5th Class Specialist Lannie VanTassel.

“It’s like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time,” said former 5th Class Specialist Steve Wolfenbarger.

For this group of Vietnam veterans, it’s a triage of love for a machine that signaled hope to so many.

“Mainly just dressing it up, we redid inside and out,” said VanTassel showing off it's new look.

For years, a Huey helicopter has sat inside the gates of Camp Navajo in Flagstaff, its body brittle from battle both overseas and from the harsh winters of northern Arizona.

“It’s been a lot of years, I have to stop and think about what I’m doing now,” said VanTassel as he removed parts.

The old UH1-H is getting a facelift from those who put their lives in her hands.

Both Wolfenbarger and VanTassel flew in the Huey during the Vietnam War. Their lives saved on multiple occasion thanks to the acrobatic chopper.

The rhythmic thumping of its hay day a sound that promised rescue to injured or trapped troops of the Vietnam War.

“We knew when we heard the 'wop wop' of the blades, we had help on the way,” said Wolfenbarger.

Now it’s on the way again. With these vets ripping out the interior, checking electronics, seats, and refurbishing the old bird to new glory.

The chopper is from the Phoenix Squadron, it’s final mission flown nearly 50 years ago as it rescued four soldiers under heavy fire before limping back to base. It was thought that only two choppers remained from that squadron across the U.S., that is until VanTassel discovered the third sitting unassumingly at Camp Navajo.

Once an unnoticed landmark, it is now a future memorial.

“We replaced door glass on this door and that door, we yanked out the pilot seat, put all refurbished padding on the seats,” VanTassel said.

Everything from the soundproof padding, new canvas seats, to the outside paint job, it’s all been redone.

The progress has been slow and steady.

“Weather’s been our biggest culprit here,” said VanTassel.

“There was a couple months where we couldn’t do anything,” said Wolfenbarger.

But despite the obstacles, they never waved the white flag. It’s not perfect but for these troops that’s ok.

“It’s one heck of a project,” said Wolfenbarger with a laugh.

“It’s an old helicopter, I’m an old guy, neither one of us are perfect anymore, you got to accept us like we are,” said VanTassel.

Like the Phoenix now gracing the old birds nose, this Huey has risen once again.

What was once a forgotten relic, now has a mission as a permanent fixture for those who sacrificed everything and for us to remember them.

“Hopefully it’s something that even the grand kids will want to see,” said Wolfenbarger.