Rare Vietnam-era helicopter for sale on Craigslist

Lothian man dreams of seeing labor of love fly

July 20, 2012|By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

For sale: painstakingly restored Vietnam War-era Marine helicopter. Records missing, but mounts, gun replicas and rocket pods included. The blades spin, but the 1965 UH-1E Huey gunship is not flyable.

To view, visit Cevon McLean's backyard in Lothian.

"Everyone said, 'Why'd you buy that?'" McLean said. "Well, because I could."

Last month, McLean posted the "pinnacle" of his collection on Craigslist for $175,000. So far, a man has offered to trade him a Learjet for McLean's piece of military history. But, as McLean's family has discussed, a Learjet's just not practical.

McLean bought the helicopter as surplus for $14,000 three years ago — it had last been used to fight fires in Florida. He spent countless hours researching its history, and then meticulously acquired authentic replacements for everything missing. He collected helmets, seats, dials and measured out the precise locations of all the decals to make the helicopter a mirror image of what it was in 1965, right down to the Camp Pendleton signature on the nose: a skull and crossbones inscribed within the ace of spades.

Now, he said, his wife wants him to sell it so they can finish their beach house.

According to McLean's research, about 200 of these Huey gunships were shipped to Vietnam, and only 36 returned.

"He's probably right on the money," said retired Col. Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and author of "How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare."

The Huey gunships were "the backbone ofU.S. militarypower for many, many years," Boyne said, and just the sort of thing someone with a sense of nostalgia might want to buy.

"Maybe they were rescued by one, or they flew one," Boyne said. "There's a lot of rich guys with toys out there, flying World War II fighter planes. ... It's a matter of prestige, like a driving an antique Rolls-Royce. It's not great for getting you around town, but it's great for prestige."

Even if the Federal Aviation Administration gave permission for McLean's Huey to leave the ground, he couldn't fly it. He walked away from plans to become a pilot in the Texas National Guard, he said, when he met his future wife, Mary.

The couple tows the Huey on a custom-made trailer — included in the purchase price — to veterans' events and fundraisers around the area, though neither ever served in the military. They say restoring the helicopter has been a public service, connecting aging veterans with their earlier lives.

"It's the sound that really brings them back," McLean said. "When they're lying in the jungle and they hear the whoop-whoop-whoop, you know the helicopter's coming. ... It brings out a lot of emotions. Just the smell inside the aircraft brings back a rush of memories for these veterans. Some good, some bad."

Two years ago, retired Marine Capt. Clyde Childress was hosting a Wounded Warrior event at his home west of Richmond, Va. By chance, a friend had spotted McLean's Huey as it rolled along Interstate 95 on its trailer, and the friend suggested bringing it to the event. Childress' flight logs revealed he had flown missions in that very helicopter.

"I just sat there, and I couldn't believe I was there sitting in a plane that I had flown 40 years ago," said Childress, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. If anyone gets McLean's Huey flying, Childress wants a ride.

The aircraft is a rare find but not a perfect one. And acquiring all the parts necessary for it to fly — not to mention the paperwork — would be an expensive undertaking.

"You have to have deep pockets, like half a million bucks. It's not funny," said Mike Law, president of the Vietnam Huey Pilots Association, which is based in Texas.

But Law understands the appeal. He said he leaped at the opportunity to ride in a Huey a few years ago, and even brought his wife along.

"While she's scared spitless, I can share with her what it was like when I was a kid," Law said, adding that the flight, though poignant, was different.

"It's not the same experience," he said. "You're not smelling Vietnam, you're not looking down over live ammunition, you're not wearing dirty clothes. So times, they have changed."

But can McLean sell his Huey, even if it can't be flown?

"Probably," Law said. "This guy might be slightly overpriced, but there's also nostalgia to it."

Scott Chellis flew Hueys in Vietnam in 1970-71, and he has been in the market for an E-series Huey for a few years. He's had trouble finding one.

"When you spend your life climbing in and out of those — I've flown over 700 hours — you get attached to it," said Chellis, who lives in North Carolina but is considering a road trip to Maryland. "Nobody who hasn't spent their life in the military would understand."

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