HELENA - If you drive around Helena often, you’ve probably seen it — the helicopter perched atop a pole at the intersection of Airport Road and Washington Street.
That helicopter has seen a lot more than just cars passing by, that specific chopper was one of the operational helicopters in the Montana National Guard.
“That aircraft — that particular aircraft — was in Vietnam,” retired US Army Montana State CSM Bob Bennett said.
That helicopter is a UH-1C Huey gunship, and Bennett along with fellow US Army veterans — retried CW5 Ken Inabnit and retired CW5 Jerry Sept — flew in or with that model helicopter on missions overseas.
“Those helicopters had a distinct sound — we call it the sound of freedom,” Inabnit said. “Even today, you hear the state UH-1s, you know the ‘wop-wop-wop,’ and it’s just something you’ll never forget.”
When on a mission, every soldier in that helicopter had a role.
“Four people in that helicopter, all doing their own job,” Sept explained. “If we’re out doing gunnery, for example, the guy in the right seat is shooting rockets, the guy in the left seat is shooting the mini-guns, and then the guys in the back are providing cover for our break. It takes coordination — back seat talking to front seat, talking to back seat. It works as a team.”
“A well-oiled team, I might add,” Inabnit said.
The UH-1C helicopter at the intersection by the airport in Helena was eventually replaced by the AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, and it was sent off to California to be prepared for display.
“They gutted stuff out of it that didn’t need to be in it for weight, and they put a really fancy glossy paint job on it,” Bennett said.
Helena Regional Airport Director Jeff Wadekamper said the helicopter represents the longstanding relationship between the Montana Army National Guard and the airport.
“Military aviation is really a large portion of the activity that’s here at the airport,” Wadekamper said. “It accounts for about 18% of the airport’s aircraft operations that occur here.”
Today, the helicopter is a landmark in Helena, but the men who flew in it hope people will see it as more than just a waypoint.
“I would hope that they would realize the sacrifice that was made by all the men and women now that have given their life for this country, or 40-plus years of serving to keep this country free and what we are,” Sept said.