A Brilliant Glass Panel Experimental Huey

The archetypal Huey UH-1 utility helicopter is not what one would think of normally as an experimental aircraft. First of all, it’s got a well-earned reputation for dependability. If it were indeed an experiment, there would be some degree of dissolution in its 65-year tenure. Second, the Huey is a marvel of wonder among aircraft, in particular with fixed-wing pilots and amateur physicists who remain convinced that helicopters aren’t supposed to fly.

Huey UH-1 over water.
The iconic Huey UH-1 Iroquois over water.

The Huey is iconic. Its image is one synonymous with aircraft of the Vietnam, and Southeast Asia, conflict era. Despite the Huey’s demonstrable pedigree, the FAA regards many of today’s UH-1s as experimental, or amateur-built, aircraft. Bell Helicopter, a renowned manufacturer of type certificated civilian and military rotorcraft, created the UH-1 beginning in 1954. Surprisingly, the FAA registry shows an equal number of UH-1 examples under both “Amateur” and “Type Certificated” headings.

“The only category the FAA has for something like this is experimental exhibition, which is the category that all of the aircraft they don’t know what else to do with go to. It’s the land of weird aircraft,” said Andrew LaFollette, Chief Pilot with Mission Essential and G Force Air, owner of the formerly German registered UH-1 D / 71+46.

UH-1 D German Registered 71+46
UH-1 D helicopter as German-registered 71+46.

“Under experimental exhibition rules, an owner is not allowed to make money with their aircraft, plus there are often other limitations on operations,” continued LaFollette. Respective of these rules, G Force Air’s UH-1 has appeared on static display at public events. The Huey has also been used with local law enforcement in training roles and frequently gives rides to veterans.

“What’s remarkable about the Huey is that in bringing them back to life one brings back to life other people’s stories in them. It is truly an amazing machine that almost everyone I talk with, when out flying, has been affected by in one way or another. It’s no wonder they’re still around and will still be around for the foreseeable future,” LaFollette added.

Huey Glass Panel Modification

Gardner-Lowe Aviation Services is a comprehensive maintenance, service and avionics installation shop based in the Atlanta area. As a long-established outfit with a glowing reputation, Gardner-Lowe sees a variety of aircraft move in and out of its hangars. The Huey was already something of a standout when it arrived at Gardner-Lowe, no matter whom you talk with. The project UH-1 D flew in under its own power, albeit with a panel full of German-made avionics and instruments. When it left, N8379R was sporting a complement of glass panel displays from Garmin, a pedestal-mounted iPad electronic flight bag, and an indispensable array of USB power and 6-Pin LEMO headset ports throughout the cabin.

Huey glass panel.
UH-1 Huey panel with a complement of glass displays from Garmin.

Matthew Platt of Gardner-Lowe Aviation Services, located at Middle Georgia Regional Airport (KMCN) in Macon, Georgia, provided a rundown of the Huey’s newly installed equipment:

  • Garmin G3X Touch System with Dual GDU 460 10.6” Displays (replacing the mechanical 6-pack cluster: Airspeed Indicator, Attitude Indicator Gyro, Altimeter, Radar Altitude Indicator, Heading Indicator, VSI)
  • Dual Garmin G5 Flight Instruments, providing backup EFIS Attitude Indication and DG/HSI Display
  • Garmin GTN 650 GPS/NAV/COM/MFD Touchscreen with WAAS in the pedestal
  • Garmin GMA 350H Digital Helicopter Audio Panel in the pedestal
  • Garmin GTX 45R Remote-mounted Mode S ES dual-link ADS-B “In” and “Out” Transponder
  • Garmin GTR 20 Remote-mounted Comm
  • Garmin GRA 55 Radar Altimeter with corresponding GI 205 Radar Altimeter Indicator on the pilot (right) side of the panel
  • Mid-Continent MD93 Digital Clock with Dual USB Charging Ports on the main panel
  • Bose LEMO Headset Jacks, 10 places throughout the cabin
  • Stratus Power USB Charger Dual Ports, 4 places
  • iPad Air/iPad Pro 9.7″ AirGizmos Panel Dock in the pedestal
  • Engine Vibration Detector/Analyzer (an original “ALARM” instrument, standard on the German UH-1) on the pilot (right) side of the panel
  • Instrument panel and center pedestal were fabricated in full carbon fiber.

A former Huey pilot, Jeff Huntoon, having seen the new panel commented, “Except for the curve of the dashboard, there’s little in common with that panel versus the old Army UH-1H that I flew.” Huntoon has logged roughly 3,000 hours in rotary wing aircraft. However, his most recent time is in the cockpit of a 747 for a major cargo airline, an aircraft that more closely resembles the windscreen view of this modernized Huey.

Boeing 747 Cargolux cockpit.
Cockpit view of a Cargolux Boeing 747.

Based in Germany, Huntoon offered some insight on the country’s history with the UH-1, “The Americans used the UH-1 Huey as a general-purpose Utility Helicopter—UH, as its name implies—for which medical support was one mission. The Germans did the same, however, here the Huey had a much more involved role as a nation with EMS support. They are recognizable to the German citizenry as fire, police or ambulance service,” in army green with orange doors and an “SAR” (search and rescue) inscription. Replacements were painted red and white with “NOTARZT” (emergency doctor) lettering on the tail.

Huntoon continued, “More recently, civil EMS commercial operators fill that role, typically in yellow painted Eurocopters known as the Gelber Engel (yellow angel).” At sea, the German Navy is just now taking delivery of the first Airbus NH90 Sea Lion naval multi-role helicopter. But the Huey’s long operational history worldwide is a testament to the American-designed UH-1’s strength and stability.

Huey, the German Expat

The German manufactured, U.S. transplanted Huey is now N-registered and owned by G Force Air LLC, an organization based at KCMH in Columbus, Ohio. G Force also operates a Super King Air 300, Piper PA-31-350 Navajo Chieftain, Mooney M20K, American Champion Scout 8GCBC, and a ViperJet. The UH-1 is in good company following a long and distinguished military run. Its “experimental” distinction, though, is shared by only the lattermost mentioned of its current stablemates.

UH-1 D U.S. Registered N8379R
German-built UH-1 D Huey flying as U.S. Registered N8379R.

While the U.S. registration for N8379R shows it as a 1970-year model, LaFollette believes 71+46 was built in 1968. The German company Dornier, under license from Bell Helicopter, built a total of 352 UH-1s. They were identified as UH-1 D, but they were not the same as the U.S. built UH-1D models. The “D” in the German manufactured units stood for Deutsche/Dornier. In fact, the German built UH-1 D helicopters more closely resemble the U.S. manufactured UH-1H models.

“I like to say that the Germans took all of the faults of the UH-1H and fixed them,” said LaFollette. He continued, “These include solid CNC machined aluminum floor panels in place of fiberglass composite floors that have a tendency to not hold up to helicopter vibrations. The tail spar is also different, so the AD/SB [Airworthiness Directive 99-25-12 / Service Bulletin SW-18-29R1] that has come out on many of the U.S. Hueys is not applicable to the German birds. Also, all of the German birds have composite main rotors. The benefit includes a 10,000-hour service life versus 2,400 hours for the metal blade Hueys.”

The UH-1H was essentially the Bell Model 205 with a 1,400 shp Lycoming T53-L-13 engine. Its pitot tube was relocated from the nose to the roof of the cockpit to prevent damage. All the rotable parts (blades, heads, gearboxes, etc.) of the German UH-1 D are OEM Bell parts.

“We purchased this helicopter from a company in California [Rice Aircraft Services] who was importing them to be updated and sold to foreign militaries, and to be put right back to work. They had bought a number of them and decided to try selling a few in the U.S. market. After a lot of negotiations, we struck a deal and [c/n] 8206 was put back together,” said LaFollette.

The Huey had been shipped from Germany in a container. Following reassembly, LaFollette revealed, “It was test flown and that was it. We elected to have it painted in its current colors—gray camo, tiger stripe pattern. The light grey is used on current Marine Hueys.” The U.S. Marine Corps operates the UH-1Y Venom, a twin-engine version, also called Super Huey and Yankee. It is the Marine Corps’ standard utility helicopter and was still in full-rate production in 2018.

UH-1Y Huey helicopter of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit
UH-1Y Huey helicopter of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Ferry Flight from California to Ohio

LaFollette recounted the first U.S. cross country flight of N8379R and its subsequent panel upgrade: “The cockpit, minus the German military equipment, consisted of steam gauges and a single VHF comm with barely a transponder. We picked it up in California and flew it back to Columbus, Ohio, in June of 2018. What a trip that was. Four days and 25 hours later it’s on the ramp at its new home. I equate that experience to riding across the U.S. on a Harley, one that should be experienced by all. Navigating across the U.S. with basically an iPad, it quickly became obvious that to keep operating in today’s modern airspace, we needed an avionics upgrade.”

Finding the right fit for an avionics retrofit was the next step. “I interviewed a tremendous number of avionics shops,” said LaFollette, “and Matt at Gardner avionics was the only one that generally seemed excited and brought his own ideas to the table. We dropped it off with them in January (28th) 2019, and rolled it out the door just in time for Sun-n-Fun on April 4th. The owner elected to equip the helicopter with the latest and greatest, and we decided to remove the old wiring and systems that were no longer being used.”

Tracing Huey’s Past

What is known about this particular helicopter’s past service is limited, but 71+46 did have a role with the German Air Force, or Luftwaffe—literally translated as “air weapon.” In congruence with Huntoon’s remarks, other UH-1 D examples are still used today by the German Air Force serving a SAR role. These “Dornier” UH-1s all flew with a cross insignia—the Bundeswehr Kreuz—on their tail displaying their ship number. LaFollette noted, “The UH-1 Ds are slowly being retired and once they are parked for good they are auctioned off and sold to the highest bidder.”

Bundeswehr Kreuz, a cross insignia of the unified armed forces of Germany.
Bundeswehr Kreuz, a cross insignia of the unified armed forces of Germany, with German registration number 71+46.

Records show 71+46 was registered in Germany and stationed at Nörvenich Air Base (ETNN) in November 1991. Nörvenich has historically been home to the German Tactical Air Force Wing 31, or Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 31. Photos of the helicopter with the markings “KFOR” suggest it had a role with the Kosovo Force, a NATO-led international peacekeeping command founded in June 1999, in the autonomous region of Southeastern Europe. The Huey was later located in Schwechat, Austria, at Vienna International Airport (LOWW) in May 2008. Here it still bore the German flag, KFOR and 71+46 markings. The Huey arrived at Rice Aircraft Services in Olivehurst, California, in 2018.

Dornier UH-1 D with Kosovo Force markings (KFOR).
Dornier UH-1 D with Kosovo Force markings (KFOR).

About the UH-1 Huey Helicopter

Developed by Texas-based Bell Helicopter to meet a United States Army’s 1952 requirement for medical evacuation and utility use, the UH-1 was produced from 1956–1987. Though commonly known as the “Huey,” a nickname derived from its original, later-transposed designation HU-1, the helicopter was also identified as the Iroquois—a name borrowed from the North American Indian tribe founded by the “Great Peacemaker.” The Huey’s entangled role as both utility/military workhorse and peacemaker resonates appropriately, despite the obvious paradox.

The Huey was the first turbine helicopter produced for the U.S. military. It is powered by a single turboshaft engine with two-blade main and tail rotors. Recognizable for the sound it makes when flying, the two-bladed design gives the Huey its characteristic “thump,” particularly evident during descent and bank maneuvers. More than 16,000 Hueys were built and many continue to operate worldwide today.

UH-1 Variants

Model number UH-1A was assigned to the first 100 production models. Follow-on UH-1B models were equipped with a more powerful engine and a longer cabin. The UH-1C addressed aerodynamic deficiencies of the armed UH-1B units and further upped engine power. Following another stretch of the cabin, the UH-1D emerged along with a multi-fuel capable engine.

In the civilian market, these aircraft were designated Bell 204 and 205. Approximately 4,000 A through D models were built, most being upgraded, armed or otherwise modified at some point in their operational life. Some were later converted to the UH-1H standard, and most-produced version, starting in 1966. The UH-1H’s dual controls consist of a single hydraulic system boosting the cyclic stick, collective lever, and anti-torque pedals.

UH-1 War Service

The UH-1 first saw service in combat operations during the Vietnam War, with around 7,000 helicopters deployed. Primary missions included general support, air assault, cargo transport, aeromedical evacuation, search and rescue, electronic warfare, and ground attack. During the conflict, the Huey was upgraded, notably to a larger version based on the Model 205. This version was initially designated the UH-1D and flew operationally from 1963.

Army UH-1

Designed as a troop carrier, the UH-1D replaced the piston-powered Sikorsky CH-34 Choctaw, an anti-submarine aircraft originally intended for the Navy, in service with the U.S. Army. The UH-1D  seated two pilots and additionally up to 13 passengers or crew in its cabin.

UH-1s tasked with ground attack or armed escort were outfitted with rocket launchers, grenade launchers, and machine guns. They were also modified locally by the military outfits themselves, who fabricated their own mounting systems. These gunship UH-1s were commonly referred to as “Frogs” or “Hogs” if they carried rockets, and “Cobras” or simply “Guns” if they had guns. UH-1s tasked and configured for troop transport were often called “Slicks” due to their absence of weapons pods. Slicks did have door gunners, but were generally employed in the troop transport and medevac roles.

Marine UH-1

Already in service with the Army, the U.S. Marine Corps selected the UH-1B as an assault support helicopter. Later modified, it became the UH-1E and replaced Cessna O-1 (L-19 Bird Dog) fixed-wing aircraft used for liaison and observation, and Kaman OH-43D helicopters of German design origins.

Navy UH-1

The U.S. Navy acquired UH-1B/C helicopters from the Army, and these aircraft were modified into gunships with special gun mounts and radar altimeters. They were known as “Seawolves” with the Navy and served in river patrol operations.

Air Force UH-1

The U.S. Air Force added later UH-1F and UH-1P models to its inventory. The Air Force also used the UH-1N for support of intercontinental ballistic missile sites, including transport of security personnel and distinguished visitors. As recently as September 2018, the Boeing/Leonardo MH-139 (an AgustaWestland AW139 variant), won a competition to replace the UH-1Ns.

Retrofitted, German-built Huey during training exercises.
Retrofitted, German-built Huey during contemporary U.S. training exercises.

D” is for Dornier

Dornier Flugzeugwerke, the now defunct German aircraft manufacturer, under license by Bell built the slightly customized UH-1 D helicopter from 1967 to 1981 for the Bundeswehr (German military). Original plans were to deliver a total of 406. These constructions saw service with the German Army and German Air Force in light utility roles and in SAR operations. Other variants of the UH-1 were built under contract in Italy, Japan and Taiwan.

The UH-1 D’s engines were produced by Motoren- und Turbinen-Union GmbH (Motor and Turbine Union, a German company), now MTU Aero Engines of Munich. The 85-year-old company was originally founded as BMW Flugmotorenbau GmbH (Flight engines construction). Today, MTU is a global provider of commercial and military engine and maintenance services, and a partner to industry leaders GE, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce.

The Dornier UH-1 D has a spacious cabin with seating up to 15, or six stretchers and a medic. It can be loaded quickly through its large sliding doors and has a high carrying capacity. Also capable of performing an attack role, the German Army, or Deutsches Heer, however, used the UH-1 D almost exclusively for transport purposes. Considered among the safest of aircraft, it was used by Germany’s Federal President, Chancellor, and other government Ministers and Members.

Utility Helicopter Workload Reduction

LaFollette elaborated on why the Huey panel retrofit, “The term situational awareness gets thrown around a lot, but I think that nails exactly what we were going after. With the G3X and the ability to display traffic, weather and airspace via one quick touch, this greatly reduces the pilot workload. Especially when operating a helicopter, all of your body parts are being used mostly all of the time. Things that get taken for granted like changing comms or typing in a frequency are no big deal in an airplane, at certain times in a helicopter can be a very big deal. We went from a single comm that used rotary style switching to two digital smart comms with standby frequencies that, just about know what frequency you want and loads it in for you. The synthetic vision is a huge help. With Garmin’s helicopter obstacle database, it has more detailed terrain and a large amount of power lines that are overlaid on the screen.

UH-1 D Huey with Garmin G3X System.
UH-1 D Huey panel retrofit with Garmin G3X System.

“We typically fly with two pilots, however, now that the panel has been completed, single pilot operations are a breeze. When we did the panel mod we were able to lay out the engine gauges in the order that we wanted and moved the really important instruments right in front of the pilot’s view. Another example is our starting clock. In the old cockpit, we had to wind it up to make the second hand start moving, then push a button to activate it for our 40-second start limit. Now we use a Mid-Continent clock/timer/USB charger and it’s a very easy one button start.”

Retiring After 60 Years of Service

As early as 1967, the UH-1B/C Huey was being replaced by the Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter. Huey gunships were rendered impractical by the increasing intensity and sophistication of anti-aircraft defenses. In 1979, the U.S. Army relegated the UH-1 primarily to support Army Aviation training and Army National Guard units at the introduction of the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk. The UH-1 was ultimately retired from the Army in 2016.

Devotees of the UH-1 in a gunship role extol its ability to act as an impromptu “Dustoff”—a call sign for emergency patient evacuation of casualties from a combat zone. The Huey is also commended for its superior observational capabilities, notably its large cabin, which allowed return fire from door gunner positions. During the 1972 Easter Offensive by North Vietnam, UH-1s equipped with TOW launchers (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided anti-tank missiles) were given the nickname “Hawk’s Claw.”

Why We Do This

Nearly half of the 7,000-plus UH-1s flown in Vietnam were destroyed. The troops’ toll was 2,177 lost in their operations. Today, the Huey and its operators are memorialized in museums and collections around the world, for example Wings & Rotors Air Museum in Murrieta, California.

Wings and Rotors Air Museum UH-1
Wings and Rotors Air Museum UH-1 Huey helicopter.

A recent aviation magazine article (Sport Aviation, September 2019) profiled Huey pilot/owner Jimmy Graham. His restored and updated UH-1H is used to honor veterans. In doing so, he “unites” with those who flew them. The EAA Young Eagles co-chairman and pro football player said he flies the Huey with pride, “carrying a piece of history and moving it forward.”

For G Force Air and the UH-1 D crew, the sentiment is similar. Whether flying veterans, police trainees, or enthusiasts alike, the Huey makes a lasting impression. Extricating the helicopter from its storied past and giving it a new life means others can feel that sense of pride. Keeping it flying takes commitment, and the costs are significant. Despite the obstacles, a flying museum is a place where stories can be shared, passions kindled, and ideas nurtured, making the efforts, valiant, nostalgic or plume, immeasurable for all involved.

Today, state-of-the-art in helicopter experimentation and design can be found in the Sikorsky HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter, “Whiskey” rendition. The “W” iteration was one of but a few letters not used in the evolution of the UH-1. Nevertheless, the Huey’s legacy is unmistakably part of the new HH-60W. Providing an unprecedented combination of range and survivability, the Whiskey strives to be the most sophisticated rotorcraft the world has known. In retrospect, this is precisely what the Huey proved to be throughout the latter half of the 20th century. A vintage Huey with a modern glass panel cockpit offers a brilliant reflection on just how advanced helicopter design has come.

Retrofitted, German-built Huey in hover.
The retrofitted and U.S. registered, German-built Huey in hover.

UH-1 D 71+46/N8379R Specifications:

  • Manufacturer: Dornier (Bell)
  • Model: UH-1 D (Iroquois, model 205)
  • Construction Number: 8206
  • Aircraft Type: Rotorcraft
  • Number of Seats: 14
  • Number of Engines: 1
  • Engine Type: Turbo-shaft
  • Engine Manufacturer and Model: Lycoming T53-L-11
  • Engine Output: 1,400 SHP
  • Cruise Speed: 205 kph / 125 mph
  • Range: 500 km / 310 miles
  • Gross Weight: 4,315 kg / 9,512 lb
  • Carrying Capacity: 3,880 lb
  • Empty Weight: 5,215 lb
  • Main Rotor Diameter: 48 ft
– Huey –

Read this article in Avionics News magazine – January 2020, feature article on pp 28-34.

Read this article in Helicopter Maintenance magazine – February/March 2020, cover story beginning on pg 8.

The article was also published in the 2020-21 Edition of Aircraft Electronics Association Pilot’s Guide. Read it online or request a FREE copy at aeapilotsguide.net.

71+42 instrument panel
Instrument panel of UH-1 D 71+42 at Berlin Gatow, November 2019. This was the standard cockpit configuration of the German-manufactured Huey, including 71+46.