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Taking flight | Friends of Army Aviation re-create history

By Pamela A. Keene

FOAA’s Huey 123, viewed from above. Riders learn about the history of the aircraft that was extensively used in Vietnam. Photos by Marc St. Pierre Photography

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. John “Doc” Holladay isn’t about to give up his love affair with Vietnam-era Army helicopters. After all, he comes by it through years of experience. After enlisting in the Army at age 17, he found his place flying and working on choppers from that era until he retired in 1990.

“I spent my 27-year career flying just about every helicopter and aircraft the Army has except the Apache, and there’s nothing like these aircraft,” says Holladay, president of Friends of Army Aviation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides education and history about the Vietnam-era Army aircraft. “Today through Friends of Army Aviation we’re keeping these aircraft alive and reminding people of what it was like to fly them. We’re also reminding people about the honor and sacrifice of the veterans who flew them and flew in them during wartime.”

Friends of Army Aviation has a collection of working and non-working aircraft at its maintenance hangar, located in Ozark, Alabama, as well as other items and artifacts highlighting Army aviation. The FOAA is known in the business as a “Flying Museum.”

“It’s where we bring dead things back to life, including aircraft,” Holladay says. The organization takes its helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft to airshows around the Southeast and gives event attendees a chance to ride in its UH-1H helicopter, also known as a Huey. This helicopter was the workhorse of the Vietnam War era. A Huey can carry up to 10 passengers who fly in the cargo compartment with the doors open.

Doc Holladay, president of the FOAA, takes a break from a flight.

“So many people just don’t know about these aircraft that flew missions during the Vietnam era, and they certainly don’t know what it feels like to fly in a UH-1H Huey helicopter with its doors open,” he says. “It’s not your normal vanilla ride, with its ups and downs and turns. It’s an exciting ride and that’s a bold understatement.”

The group gives rides to visitors at airshows, veterans events and festivals throughout the eastern United States. Members interact with visitors who come to see the static displays and learn about Army aviation.

“We’re keeping the legacy of Army aviation in the forefront as we travel around to various events, showing honor and respect to those Veterans by helping them tell their stories to the public.”

An educational mission

Holladay served three combat tours in Vietnam, was appointed a warrant officer, received a combat direct commission, and later was a general’s aide to two generals at the Army Aviation Systems Command. After his retirement as a lieutenant colonel, he worked in trucking and transportation in the Southeast and moved to Dothan.

As president of Friends of Army Aviation, Holladay leads a group of 270 members and volunteers who help maintain the organization’s aircraft and support its educational mission.  Qualified volunteers help restore helicopters, fly the aircraft to events, and provide information to the thousands of visitors who come to airshows each year. 

FOAA has events scheduled in Florida and Georgia for May, including the week-long Melbourne, Florida, Vietnam Veterans Reunion from May 6-10; a fly-in in Sylvester, Georgia, on May 16; and a fly-in in Ellijay, Georgia, on May 23. The Annual Dothan Remembers event is slated for June 13. (Scheduled events are subject to cancellation or postponement; please check the website for information.) 

Holladay says the organization is always looking for more Vietnam-era equipment to add to its museum and its flying fleet. “Some of the aircraft we get are just junk, but we find a use for them, at least in the museum,” Holladay says. “And we have a motto around here: ‘We’re bringing living history to life, and with our aircraft, some of it actually flies.’”

Aircraft used in flying must pass rigorous inspections and scheduled checks by the Federal Aviation Administration. Many of the pilots who fly for FOAA flew missions in Vietnam and are willing to share some of their stories.

Rides last between 10 and 12 minutes. Riders who are minors, aged 14 and under, must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. All riders must sign a waiver of liability.

“Safety is our No. 1 goal,” Holladay says. “Everything revolves around it. Bringing these legacy aircraft representing Army aviation to the public comes at a great cost to our organization, but one that we readily accept.”

Annual membership is open to the public at $50 per person and a lifetime membership costs $150. Membership fees, along with sponsorships and donations, support the organization’s museum, educational mission and equipment costs.

“Between 80 and 85 percent of the people who take a ride have never even been up in a helicopter,” Holladay says. “It’s a thrill for us to see the faces of the people who ride. It also helps the family members experience what their loved ones did daily during war time.  It is also another way to support our military and all they do for our country.”

• The Friends of Army Aviation (FOAA) is available to bring aircraft to events in the Southeast.

• For more information, call 334-445-0008, or email Friendsofarmyaviation@outlook.com

• The website is FriendsofArmyAviation.org 

• To join the group, dues are $50 per year, and $150 for lifetime membership.