More than just Hueys—a multitude of choppers flew the dangerous skies of Vietnam

For most American combat personnel who served in Vietnam, the classic image of “the helicopter war” was the “Huey,” like the Bell UH-1D. The Huey was ready to back troops up, extract them or rush them to the hospital as the exigencies demanded. There were, however, quite a variety of other rotary-winged craft that made their mark on the Vietnamese landscape. Here are 11 helicopters (Huey included) that played a vital role in the Vietnam War.

  • SEAHORSE: Marines board Sikorsky UH-34 Seahorses that will transport them in August 1966 to landing zones during Operation Colorado in northern South Vietnam. / National Archives
  • SHAWNEE: Dubbed the “Flying Banana,” the Piasecki H-21 Shawnee was another early helicopter in Vietnam. Army H-21 helos conduct an assault near Bien Hoa, north of Saigon, on Jan. 12, 1964.
  • SUPER JOLLY: A minigun is fired from the rear ramp of an Air Force Sikorsky HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant during a rescue in June 1970. / U.S Air Force
  • JOLLY GREEN GIANT: The HH-53's predecessor, the Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, touches down in the tall grass during rescue training in South Vietnam. Initially a principal rescue helicopter for the U.S. Air Force, the HH-3 was phased out and replaced by the larger and more powerful Super Jolly.
  • TARHE: A Sikorsky CH-54B Tarhe, better known as the Skycrane, brings another M114 155 mm howitzer to a 3rd Marine Division artillery position near the Laotian border in January 1969, The artillery supported some 5,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese troops in an offensive near the abandoned Marine fortress at Khe Sanh in northern South Vietnam. / Getty Images
  • CHINOOK: An Army Boeing CH-47 Chinook hovers near delivered supplies at Fire Support Base Ripcord on July 18, 1970. The mountaintop base had been under North Vietnamese siege since July 1 and due to the terrain could only be resupplied by helicopter. In spite of Chinook crews’ efforts, the heavily outnumbered U.S. forces were ordered to evacuate on July 23. / Getty Images
  • COBRA: Packed with rockets and a chin-turret minigun, a shark-mouthed Bell AH-1 Cobra, above, takes off on a mission from the Central Highlands base of Pleiku on Feb. 21, 1972. / Getty Images
  • SEA KNIGHT: A Boeing-Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight delivers supplies to a Marine base. Introduced in 1964, this helicopter wasn't combat ready until 1968 after a series of modifications. The versatile “Phrog,” a nickname from its froglike shape, performed yeoman service for the Navy and Marines, including air assault, logistic support, medevac, and search and rescue. / USMC
  • IROQUOIS, AKA HUEY: Army UH-1B Hueys transport South Vietnamese troops in a raid on Viet Cong positions in 1963. / Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
  • HUSKIE: A Kaman HH-43 Huskie, or “Pedro” as Air Force crews called it, recovers an airman, probably during a training exercise. / © Tim Page/Corbis via Getty Images
  • CAYUSE: The gunner of a Hughes OH-6 Cayuse light observation helicopter (LOH and called a "Loach") stands on a skid as the helo, flying at treetop level, reconnoiters the situation on Route 1, north of Hue in northern South Vietnam on May 28, 1972. / AP Photo/Richard Blystone

Helicopters began proving their worth over Korea in the 1950s, but it was over Indochina that a new generation of rotary-winged aircraft became an indispensable military asset. Vertical takeoff and landing capabilities allowed soldiers to be rushed to the jungles, valleys and hilltops. The copters were equally adept at extracting troops when the operation was completed. Their ability to evacuate the wounded and swiftly convey them to a medical facility was the difference between life and death for tens of thousands of casualties.

As the war expanded, specialized helicopters were developed for a variety of tasks. Cargo carriers brought artillery, ammunition and other heavy equipment to remote fire support bases. When communist-manned 12.7 mm machine guns (known and dreaded by the helicopter crews as “.51-calibers”) became a threat to the troop-carrying “slicks” and medevac choppers, the helos were mounted with a counter-arsenal of guns and rockets, culminating in gunships like the Bell AH-1 Cobra.

The intense combat took a toll on the 12,000 helicopters that served in Vietnam. The Army lost at least 5,195 to combat or accidents. The Marines lost 270, the Air Force 110 and the Navy 32. The South Vietnamese lost 482, and the Australians six. Those casualties were suffered in the course of 5.25 million sorties, during which the machines underwent a rapid evolution with benefits that continue to be felt in both military and civilian uses. V

This article appeared in the August 2020 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe here: