Marvis “Adam” Dobbs ran his hand across the floor of the helicopter in a slow circle before slapping the metal with his palm and climbing aboard.
It was the first time since 1970 that he had taken the gunner's seat of the Bell UH-1H “Huey” with the serial number 66-16019, the same bird he flew aboard during the Vietnam War.
Dobbs, who was a door gunner in the Army’s 7/17 Air Cavalry, visited Missoula on Monday with Allen Reed, who always occupied the other side of the aircraft as the crew chief.
The helicopter is now at the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History at Fort Missoula.
“Right here is where grandpa used to sit,” Reed said, pounding his fist on one of the left-side seats as grandsons Coy and Damien scrambled their way up into the helicopter.
Reed was 18 when he was deployed to Vietnam in 1969. Dobbs was 19, and said he enlisted in the Army to be a fighter jet mechanic, and was sent to Vietnam to work on the helicopters.
When he got overseas, he saw a group of gunners, and was interested in the job because they were able to wear their hair and beards more wild and unkempt than the rest of the men.
“Gunner was a volunteer position, and they didn’t have that many people who were that nuts,” he said.
After they both left Vietnam in 1970, Reed ended up going back for another year in 1971. A patch on Dobbs’ jacket reads: “Vietnam: We were winning when I left.”
The pair found each other again a little more than a year ago when Reed, who lives in Utah, made a post on a 7/17 Air Cavalry website looking for some of his former crew members.
Once they reconnected, Dobbs, who lives in Arizona, said he had heard their old helicopter was at a museum in Montana and they began doing the research to track it down.
“It feels good to see her again,” Dobbs said. “To be honest and truthful with you, there’s some fond memories and there’s some real sad ones.”
Reed said the Huey had an issue where the rotor wouldn’t start turning properly. He remembered one occasion when they were taking rocket fire. The other helicopters had already taken off, but they were having trouble with their bird.
“The pilot said ‘I’m going to shut it down’ and I said, ‘No, you are not,’ ” Reed said.
Instead, the crew jumped out and pushed the rotors by hand to get them to engage. Reed said they barely got off the ground and out of the fire zone in time.
Hayes Otoupalik, a registered nonprofit military curator and board member of the museum, filed the paperwork to get the helicopter back in 1993.
Upon its arrival, it was first placed near Otoupalik’s home on Evaro Hill before it was moved to the museum in 2005.
The helicopter was commissioned for use in Vietnam in 1967. Log books show the Huey had more than 21,000 hours of flight time throughout its life, including years of use as a training craft by the Army and Navy after the war.
Dobbs and Reed were the second and third former crew members to visit the aircraft since it came to Missoula, after former pilot Ricky Gerontis visited the museum in 2012.
“We’ve made contact with four of the probably 15 people who have a distinct memory of this bird,” Otoupalik said.
Tate Jones, executive director of the museum, brought out one of the M60 machine guns that had been used on the helicopters at the time. Reed turned it over in his hands, hefting it with an air of familiarity. He pointed out a spot near the breach on the weapon to Jones.
“We used to stick a C-ration right here to keep it from jamming,” Reed said.
Dobbs said he wasn’t sure as he drove up to the museum how he would handle seeing his old helicopter again.
“After 45 years, this does my heart good,” he said. “This is closure. This is homecoming. This is the screen door hitting you in the ass.”