History takes flight in Alabama with Friends of Army Aviation’s restored helicopters

History takes flight in Alabama with Friends of Army Aviation’s restored helicopters
Friends of Army Aviation’s Huey 123 in flight. Riders learn about the history of the aircraft that was used extensively in Vietnam. (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,” said Holladay, president of Friends of Army Aviation, a nonprofit organization that provides education and history about Vietnam-era 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.”

Doc Holladay, president of the FOAA, takes a break from a flight. (Marc St. Pierre Photography)

Friends of Army Aviation (FOAA) has a collection of working and nonworking aircraft at its maintenance hangar in Ozark, as well as items and artifacts. The FOAA is known in the business as a “Flying Museum.”

“It’s where we bring dead things back to life, including aircraft,” Holladay said. The organization takes its helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft to airshows around the Southeast and gives event attendees a chance to ride in a 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 in the cargo compartment.

“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 said. “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 was 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 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 thousands of visitors.

The annual Dothan Remembers event is slated for June 13. (Scheduled events are subject to cancellation or postponement; check the website for information.)

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

Members of Friends of Army Aviation meet inside the group’s hangar in Ozark. (contributed)

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 10-12 minutes. Riders who are ages 14 and younger must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. All riders must sign a waiver of liability.

“Safety is our No. 1 goal,” Holladay said. “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% of the people who take a ride have never even been up in a helicopter,” Holladay said. “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.”

This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.

Editor’s note: The Friends of Army Aviation has only made one flight since the COVID-19 pandemic began in Alabama. President John “Doc” Holladay said that flight was “to show respect at the grave site of one of our fallen Vietnam veterans. This was done at the request of the family.” Holladay added, “This crisis has in no way dampened our enthusiasm and our desire to continue performing for the American public as well as allowing those individuals to experience what the Vietnam veteran lived with over 50 years ago. It is only fitting for us to remember the 58,000  that gave the ultimate sacrifice for this country and to remember those who still are with us by simply saying ‘thank you’ for your service.” Holladay said FOAA has plans to be back on the event circuit this summer on into the fall of 2020. “We ask everyone to be looking out for our first major event in Dothan the latter part of July.  Please check our website.”

• 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 [email protected]

• The website is FriendsofArmyAviation.org 

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

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