Remembering Huey Walsh, by Arnie Reiner
Being young, spirited and sometimes clueless often leads to hard lessons in life. Not so for Huey. He’d emerge from challenging flights and head scratching decisions unscathed, unassuming and successful.
As captains and CH-46 aircraft commanders, we often flew missions together. One was particularly memorable and defined Huey as an aviator who, without fuss and fanfare, would test the limits of his flying skill to get the job done. The mission wasn’t a tracer-streaked rescue or a hairy med-evac, just a routine night transfer of wounded marines from Phu Bai to the hospital ship Repose about 10 miles out in the South China Sea.
It was after dark at Phu Bai airfield when Huey and I were fragged to transfer about 20 stretchered marines to the Repose. Our crew chiefs and gunners rigged the straps where the marines would be secured on stretchers one atop the other on both sides of the cabin. The wounded were brought on board, about 10 in each aircraft. A few minutes later, we were off and climbing east over the South China Sea with me trailing in a loose right echelon. Ahead, and still out of sight was the USS Repose, its low frequency radio beacon pointing the way.
I had landed on the ship’s small stern helipad several times in daylight but a night landing with few visual cues was more demanding. The approach was 45 degrees off the stern with the helicopter angled the same way at touchdown. With the ship’s lights in sight, we did the landing checklist and the copilot locked the nose gear and set the main gear brakes so we wouldn’t roll around on the deck. I advised the crew chief that we’d be landing soon. But as we let down, the ship radioed that a power failure had rendered the helipad edge lights inoperative. Without helipad lights, the only deck illumination would be from our controllable searchlight. I radioed Huey that the landing was too dicey and I wasn’t going to risk it. Huey radioed back: “I’ll give it a try.” Failure, of course meant that the rotors might hit the ship’s superstructure or even worse, the helicopter might strike the helipad’s edge and topple into the sea. Such accidents were not unheard of, even in the best circumstances, but were more likely at night.
I watched as his CH-46 approached the ship, its searchlight shining down on the sea. Then it went stationary as his helicopter touched down on the Repose’s helipad. With his med-evacs off- loaded, he spiraled up and I joined up for the return flight. At Phu Bai, medics offloaded the stretchers and we shut down and headed for the transit hooch to spend the night. Huey thought nothing of it but it was a daring maneuver and an excellent piece of flying that tested all his flying senses. That was Huey.
Back in CONUS, I had about a year of active duty remaining, Huey had just a few months to go. We both wanted to hire on with the airlines. But Huey, who didn’t appreciate the importance of airline pilot seniority, decided to extend his active duty a couple of years because he said, “I want to instruct in T-28s.” I tried to explain to him that even a few months of seniority could be the difference between a captain’s slot or remaining a co-pilot for years, even getting furloughed. He didn’t care and extended his active duty. Two years later, with his extension completed, he drove to Atlanta and got hired by Delta in 1970. At the time, Delta was viewed more like a mom and pop airline with routes mainly in the south. Meanwhile, being more strategic and conservative with an eye toward rapid advancement in a prestigious airline, I hired on with Pan Am just weeks after discharge in 1968. But in 1970 international flying tanked and I was furloughed along with thousands of pilots throughout the industry. But Delta Air Lines pressed on and expanded and Huey, who never considered seniority, was never furloughed.
In 1991 Pan Am went bankrupt, selling its European routes to Delta and transferring some of the pilots who flew those routes to Delta. Once again Huey and I were in the same organization. But unlike Huey, who had coasted up to 767 captain years earlier, my shredded seniority (all the things I warned Huey about ), got me to retirement as a 727 captain.
Huey, with casual aplomb and sharp flying skills, survived a year of combat flying in Vietnam, had a successful airline career helped by the luck of the draw, a good marriage, two sons he was proud of and lots of grandkids. A life well lived.
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