Monday, September 5, 2016

Sky Soldiers bring appreciation, knowledge and healing to the public

From left, Cliff McKeithan, Jack McCormick and Lee Stewart sit in a Huey helicopter at the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation in Hampton.

HAMPTON — Duty, honor and country — these are the ideals as pointed out by Gen. MacArthur that U.S. military soldiers live by. They don’t fade with the passage of time.

The invisible ties that bind all military personnel together remain strong whether you’re a veteran from the World War II, Vietnam or Gulf era or a brand new recruit.

Those ties are what brought Jack McCormick and Cliff McKeithan together. The two are founding members of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation and Flying Museum Sky Soldiers in Hampton. Each flew military aircraft during the Vietnam War. And both know first-hand how valuable Army pilots, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are to the nation’s defense.

“We would go to air shows and see big-winged aircraft flying, but never Army aircraft,” McKeithan said. “Military aviation is associated with the Navy and Air Force.”

McKeithan said the public doesn’t typically associate flying with the Army.

“In Vietnam, the Army had more aircraft than the Navy and Air Force combined,” he said.

McCormick and McKeithan wanted to change that perception.

“Our goal (starting the AAHF) was to acquire Army aircraft, and our purpose is to educate the public and give them an appreciation of what the Army has given to aviation,” McKeithan said.

The all-volunteer based nonprofit does this through an number of activities including participating in air shows, demonstrations, helicopter rides and flyovers.

Since its inception in 1997, the AAHF has amassed a group of members who perform a number of jobs — everything from paperwork, to restoration and piloting aircraft.

The foundation has collected four UH-1 Huey helicopters, five AH-1 Cobra helicopters and one Bird Dog Reconnaissance fixed-wing aircraft.

For many of its members, the Huey is closest to their hearts.

Retired Army soldier Lee Stewart said the sound of a Huey brings back the most memories from his time spent in Vietnam.

“I’ll never forget the sound of a Huey. The whop, whop, whop sound is so unique that I know it anywhere,” Stewart said. “Even now all these years later when I hear it, I’m running outside to see it.”

Stewart said the Huey is how soldiers moved around the countryside in Vietnam. He worked as a loader for the helicopters during the war.

“I was the guy with the orange batons directing soldiers on and off the helicopter on the landing zone,” Stewart said.

He said the helicopter is what brought him into war and what eventually transported him to the hospital after being shot.

“I heard it and I knew it was coming for me,” Stewart said. “Everybody has their own moments and memories associated with the sound.”

For some the memories of war, especially during the Vietnam era, have never faded.

McCormick said an unplanned outcome of restoring and presenting the aircraft to the public has been healing.

“I was at a show where we had a static display of a Huey. I watched two older vets sit on the floor in the door of a Huey with their feet dangling off the edge,” McCormick said. “It struck me right then and I watched all the years fall away from their faces. They were 18 again. I knew they had served together and survived together.”

McKeithan has also seen first-hand the healing power of the aircraft.

“We run across it all the time. You can see it in their eyes,” he said, “When they sit in the craft it has a therapeutic effect. You look into their eyes and see the demons are gone. It makes them whole again.”

The aircraft have also helped to bring closure to family members too.

“I met a lady in Port Clinton, Ohio, who came over to sit in the helicopter,” McKeithan said. “After about 20 minutes she got up and said to us that her son had been a crewman on a Huey who died in Vietnam. She wanted to sit where he sat and felt what he felt in the helicopter. We run across this phenomenon all the time.”

McCormick said they’re helping to give the public an appreciation for what veterans did during war.

“We were hated when we came home (from Vietnam),” he said. “Now we’re offering healing to a group of people who never thought they would get any appreciation for their service.”

Steward said every time AAHF flies with people “there’s some significant emotional event.”

The “emotional events” were what gave McCormick the idea to offer rides in the aircraft to the public. For two years he worked to get an exemption from the government to fly civilians in military aircraft.

Now those flights are what help keep the organization afloat financially.

“This is a very rewarding thing we get to do,” McCormick said.

Members participate in several shows throughout the year across the country and in Hampton, too.

Huey rides are being offered Sept. 30 starting at 1 p.m. at the AAHF Hangar, 506 Speedway Blvd. The cost to ride is $70 per person. Also offered are to the public hangar tours and rides in the Cobra helicopters. Annual memberships are also available for $48 per year. All monies raised from the flights and memberships fund the AAHF mission.

All tours and flights must be scheduled in advance. To do so, call 770-897-0444, email or visit

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