TUMWATER, Thurston County —
There are no seats or control sticks in the helicopter’s interior, and the tail boom is behind the body but disconnected, like a joint out of socket. The engine and transmission sit a few feet to the side of the fuselage, near shelves full of parts. Rotor blades are nowhere to be seen.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think this aircraft named Caroline was a mess.
But as Bob Hedrick stands on a maintenance-shop floor here at the Olympia Regional Airport, he compares the scene to those TV shows where mechanics build a custom motorcycle.
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Hedrick, aviation program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is former law enforcement, having flown helicopters for the police department in Fresno, Calif. He talks like a former officer too, with short sentences and clipped diction, as he describes the TV show.
Those bike mechanics, he says, will take all the separate parts — the frame, tires, gas tank — and assemble them to make sure they work together.
“Then they just pull everything apart, and it goes to paint, and the build comes again,” Hedrick said. “That’s kind of like this.”
Except this isn’t a vanity bike. It’s a Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter.
That will fight massive wildfires.
That is being put together with surplus parts because a factory-built machine would cost 20 times more.
Names of the Hueys
Better known as the Huey, the UH-1 is a symbol of the Vietnam War, where thousands of the helicopters ferried troops and supplies and rained machine-gun and rocket fire down onto jungles and rice paddies.
They aren’t in production anymore, but seven Hueys have made their way to the DNR to scout wildfires across Washington state and drop a water-foam solution to contain the blazes.
Hedrick, 49, stands next to Caroline, slated to become Huey No. 8. A new aircraft might cost $10 million, Hedrick says, but getting a loaned airframe like Caroline from the federal government means the rebuilt helicopter will cost about $500,000, mostly for needed parts.
Caroline, named after the Neil Diamond song, was built in 1973 and came to Washington from the Army base in Fort Hood, Texas. It was used there as a trainer for most of its life.
Of the four aircraft in the maintenance shed today — the DNR’s other four choppers are sitting nearby in a storage hangar — Caroline isn’t the oldest. It’s parked next to Mustang Sally, a 1963 Huey that pulled three tours in Vietnam.
“This one got shot up so bad it had to go in for a complete fuselage overhaul with Bell Helicopters before it did its last run,” said Lee Smith, the aviation program’s maintenance director.
And then there’s Patches, another Huey that flew over Vietnam. Patches is the only one in the fleet not named after a song, but rather the shape it was in when delivered.
“When we first got that helicopter it was so full of bullet holes, it looked like a garden sprinkler, man,” Smith said. “We had to re-skin it.”
Smith, 57, is a taller fellow who wears eyeglasses over a round face and who used to fly for airlines. But he came to mechanic work because he found it more challenging. Keeping the existing choppers in the air and rebuilding a bird like Caroline is an exercise in mastering assorted specialties. The mechanics become experts in fuel lines, sheet metal, engines, electronics, avionics and window work.
All told, an aircraft like Caroline takes roughly 5,000 mechanic hours to become flight-worthy.
Caroline isn’t their first rebuild — they’ve done several by now — and the crew has found a rhythm of how to get it done.
Even before a fuselage has been obtained, Smith keeps an eye out on a federal database for parts it may need. Lee and Smith build a timeline and schedule for installing parts and systems and then record the progress.
The crew has learned to take engines from AH-1 Cobras that the DNR used to fly and drop them into the Hueys. Caroline will get one of those.
“From the experience they have with it, it’s somewhat old hat,” Smith said.
The slow season
Helicopters, with their complexity of revolving parts, need a lot of routine checks and maintenance. The DNR’s fleet, which has had a clean safety record for at least the past 10 years, have mandatory maintenance checks every 25 flight hours. At every 125 hours they need to be shuttled back from the field to the Tumwater maintenance shop to be taken apart for a major inspection.
In the meantime, when a chopper shows a hint of a problem, it stays grounded.
“It’s not like our car where we’ll still drive it to work,” Hedrick said.
Fighting the summer’s wildfires, which burned over 400,000 acres and included the single largest blaze in the state’s recorded history, challenged that delicate operation of keeping the Hueys airborne.
“We were going through flight hours so rapidly, they would time out and have to be back here,” Smith said.
Now, in the slow season, Hedrick’s team can add Caroline to the fleet, which will make it easier to keep several choppers deployed when others are grounded with problems or inspections.
“It’s just going to be a huge relief, as far as maintenance,” he said.
The job of fighting fires will require the team to equip Caroline with a slew of custom equipment. There’s the hook-and-cable suspension system to lift and direct the 240-gallon bucket that the helicopter will dip into water and release on fires.
There’s a reinforced door on the left side with a bubble window, so the pilot can lean out during a maneuver to keep an eye on the bucket while it’s being used. Caroline and the other Hueys are also converted from right-seat pilot positions to the left seat to do this.
And then there’s a foam system — custom-designed by the DNR — that attaches outside of the fuselage that mixes foam with the water to increase its effectiveness. That matters, because the Hueys will often be operating without immediate backup.
“We operate on steep hillsides,” Smith said. “We go to places the fire trucks can’t get to.”
Standing near the aircraft’s empty interior, Smith recounts Caroline’s progress. It’s been stripped of her olive drab and painted in the colors of the DNR logo: blue, green and white.
The engine and transmission, which came from one of four AH-1 Cobras that were retired after the manufacturer refused to certify them for hauling water, are rebuilt and ready to drop in.
And though it’s still disconnected, Smith estimates that Caroline’s tail boom is 85 percent finished.
The tail boom has recently been the domain of 52-year-old DNR mechanic Ron Worrell. He’s been installing gearboxes and aligning parts along the boom ahead of its pending reunion with the fuselage. Worrell, who sports a handlebar mustache and grease under his fingernails, says he enjoys taking the war machines and giving them a new job.
“It was for one purpose,” Worrell said, “And now it’s for another.”
If all goes as scheduled, Caroline will be assembled and tested, and will have passed federal inspection standards by spring, just as the wildfire threat begins to rouse.
“Where’s the wood at?” said Hedrick, finding a piece nearby on which to rap his knuckles. “Knock on wood.”