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2018-09-01 / Go Pink Boots

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

Jill Gleeson


If you’d asked me a couple months ago what I thought the top 100 most purely exhilarating events of my life might turn out to be, nowhere on that list would appear riding in a helicopter over Henry County, Georgia. Or riding in a helicopter anywhere, for that matter. I’ve done so a couple times over the years, flying high above San Antonio and Lake Tahoe. I found the experiences more a lovely way to see the scenery than anything approaching an adrenaline-charged thrill ride. Of course, those flights were on commercial aircraft, piloted by men most interested in avoiding any rough air or maneuvers that might jostle their clients.

Flying in a battle-tested UH-1H “Huey” with the “Sky Soldiers” of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, as I happily discovered, is to those tourist flights what swimming in a storm-tossed sea is to taking a dip in a half-filled kiddie pool. It was more terrifying, joyous, edifying and poignant than most of the riskiest adventures I’ve been on halfway around the world. The flight itself was a blast, but spending time with the organization’s veterans, many of whom fought in Vietnam, was an honor.

The Army Aviation Heritage Foundation was started in 1997, mostly by retired military, as a way to inform the public about the role Army Aviation and its veterans have played in protecting this country.

The main chapter is located in Hampton, Georgia, next to the Atlanta Motor Speedway. The nonprofit organization’s volunteers restore vintage combat helicopters and give free hangar tours to the public.
They also offer short rides from their home base or at air shows in a Huey like the one I flew in, or an AH-1F Cobra Attack helicopter. I was able to sit in the pilot seat of one of the Cobras when I toured the hangar, a sobering experience after I learned it had been shot down in Vietnam, killing the pilot.

There were other stories that day that moved me, turning me reflective and quiet — the Vietnam vet honoring his friends killed in combat with a Huey ride, the old, ill warrior taking to the sky one last time.

The tales of valor found and lives lost stayed with me as I boarded the Huey. I asked Lee, who had been shot once in Vietnam, went back and was shot again, where I should sit for the most exciting ride.


He pointed to the gun well, a little alcove set alongside the body of the Huey, with room for two seats and not much else. As I settled into one, I realized that the only thing holding me into the chopper would be a seat belt. I looked down at my feet. They barely fit on the floor.

The helicopter rose, slowly at first, and then with surprising speed, into the air. I started screaming.

Immediately. Loudly, too, although no one could hear me because of the great gusts of wind rushing through the chopper’s open doors. What if the little belt across my lap snapped? I would be unceremoniously ejected like Pez from a dispenser out into the air. I kept on screaming, upping the volume and intensity when the pilot suddenly dove downward, leaving my stomach somewhere behind us.


I tried peering down, beyond my toes, at the gorgeous green forest and farmland of Henry County below, but every time I did, I screamed harder. Laughed, too, because I was loving every second of this adventure, the way I love scary movies, or roller coasters, or being tickled in my most ticklish spots.

Only it was a million times more intense — especially when the pilot banked the plane without warning to my side.

I was suddenly staring straight down at the Atlanta Motor Speedway far, far below, nothing holding me in the helicopter but my seat belt. Hanging in mid-air, I screamed and laughed more, wanting it to end but hoping it never would.

After we landed, my hair a snarled mess, my eyes bright with pleasure, I made sure to shake every one of Sky Soldiers’ hands. Not only for the airbourne adventure, but for their service and sacrifice, which I understood more viscerally than ever before. •SCM


For more information about the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, visit armyav.org.


Jill Gleeson is on the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at gleesonreboots.com and via her column at womansday.com.

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