128th Aviation Brigade / By SSG Jeremy McNichol: When we think of Army Aviation history, we most often think of Fort Rucker, Alabama, home of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence.
An OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and other historical aircraft being washed by Soldiers of Co. A, 1st Bn., 210th Avn. Regt. at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA. / U.S. ARMY PHOTOS BY CPT MATTHEW MURRAY
And rightly so, since the first class began there on January 29, 1955 when the school moved from Ft. Sill, Oklahoma to Camp Rucker it has been the home of Army Aviation. However, there was a time, nearly seventy years ago when the helicopter was just entering service and was viewed primarily as a means of transporting people and equipment around the battlefield. As a result of the doctrine at that time the Transportation Corps and Ft. Eustis played a significant role in the shaping of the modern Army Aviation story.
In the early days, long before aviation became a basic branch of the Army, nearly every branch had a slice of this new thing called aviation. The Signal Corps was first then the Army Air Forces (before the US Air Force) and the Field Artillery all included aviation in their roles and missions and consequently, had a piece of it but there was no single aviation branch at the time. With the increased emphasis on battlefield mobility the Transportation Corps became a focal point for employment of the helicopter as the mission evolved with the introduction of the Bell-47 (OH -13) in 1947.
Here at Ft. Eustis, VA, since aviation history is intertwined with the Transportation Corps history you can find many great examples of a wide range of aircraft and other historical items at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, Ft. Eustis (now part of Joint Base Langley-Eustis). There is an entire wing dedicated to Army aviation and aviation logistics. Upon entering the museum there are displays depicting the early days of Army aviation, featuring the L-19/O-1 Bird Dog, OH-13 Sioux, H-19 Chickasaw, all displayed in a Korean War setting; the ubiquitous UH-1 Huey, the workhorse of Army Aviation from Viet Nam, is shown in a classic Southeast Asia diorama. On display there are several experimental pieces from the early days of what is now the Aviation Applied Technology Directorate showing the research and development that has led us to our modern systems.
The author, SSG Jeremy McNichol, washes an experimental design at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA.
Outside the museum you will find several pavilions covering the Transportation Corps’ varied history of ground vehicles, watercraft and rail but they are by no means comparable to the iconic pieces of Army Aviation history. Aircraft like the CH-54 Tarhe, the Army’s true heavy lift helicopter also called the Sky Crane, and the C-7 Caribou that were so key in redefining the roles and missions between the USAF and Army regarding aviation in the late 1960s. Inside the aviation pavilion 13 aircraft and 4 experimental systems are on display including the very first prototype CH-47A Chinook that was restored to display standards with the help of brigade NCOs applying their MOS skills. There is an L-20/U-6 Beaver (which was replaced by the UH-1) that our 15G instructors volunteered and rebuilt after the roof collapsed in a snow storm and nearly destroyed the aircraft (no small task since they had to find the depot maintenance work requests for this obsolete aircraft then fabricate the structure). There is a presidential H-34 Choctaw, an OH-23 Raven, aTH-55 Osage training aircraft, the venerable OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and much more.
Venue as a Resource
As instructors at the 128th Aviation Brigade, we play an important part in preserving these aviation treasures. Every day is a busy day at the museum and in addition to the normal flow of visitors you will see Soldiers, NCOs and family members attending Aviation advanced individual training (AIT) graduations and viewing the exhibits. Holding AIT graduations at the museum further ensures we keep the connection to our history and our roots alive. In addition to graduations, every Saturday you will find Aviation AIT Soldiers attending training at the museum. As part of the initial military training they receive for their respective MOSs, Soldiers also spend several hours at the museum learning the history of our branch. Utilizing Aviation NCO volunteers along with the museum staff, Soldiers are presented the history of Army aviation, from its humble beginnings with balloons trained right here at Ft. Eustis through the developmental days of the past seven decades to the current world of high tech, digital, turbine powered machines. This block of instruction gives them an understanding of where we came from and where we are going.
Sustaining the Effort
Any day of the week you can find members of the 128th Aviation Brigade putting in the time and effort to ensure that our history, wherever it is, is preserved and kept up to standard through the brigade’s “Adopt an Aircraft” initiative. This program encourages volunteers to utilize their aviation maintenance expertise to preserve these great artifacts. Initially it was a blanket request for volunteer projects which then sparked a discussion about the aviation artifacts. What started humbly as just NCOs from A Company, 1-210th Avn Regt adopting the entirety of the aviation pavilion (19 artifacts in total), evolved into a much larger project involving all instructors and staff members within the 128th AB. Monthly events conducted by each company result in aircraft and experimental pieces being maintained in a clean, museum worthy state. The NCOs’ efforts keep the museums’ maintenance costs down and have greatly extended the life of the artifacts for all to see as they enter the main gate to Fort Eustis.
Aviation has had a long and distinguished history in our Army and it is up to all of us to preserve and pass along that history to future generations of Aviation Soldiers thereby ensuring we remain “Above the Best!”
SSG Jeremy McNichol is a 15Y instructor with Company A, 1st Battalion, 210th Aviation Regiment, 128th Aviation Brigade at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA.