“Clear to start!”

Those three words mean takeoff is only moments away.

Nervousness grows. The helicopter separates from the ground below it. The wings of the helicopter are spinning violently. From the inside, you can't even hear your own voice. At 500 feet looking down, a lake is the size of a dime and cars the size of ants. Fear disappears. The only logical option is to abandon worry and appreciate the beauty. Joy sets in.

A Love for Restoration

Bob Swink is a Vietnam veteran who was a pilot and a mechanic. He served in the Army as well as the National Guard. He currently works at the Winder, Ga. Airport and does maintenance on small airplanes.

"If you're a school-trained cook you'll end up in the kitchen. If you're a trained mechanic you'll always end up working in a maintenance shop. That's just what I've always done.”

Swink enjoys working on airplanes, but he finds flying more than fulfilling. “I'm not so much an adrenaline freak anymore but I still love to fly,” he says.

Love for flying must run in the family. Swink and his four year-old granddaughter fly once a month to “keep the helicopter exercised.” She loves it, and is just as fearless as her grandfather. When they fly, they don't even put the doors on the helicopter.

Flying through Time 

Swink says this helicopter is very unique. It's an OH-23 Raven, which was manufactured by Fairchild Hiller Aircraft and introduced in 1948. This observational helicopter was used as a trainer in Mineral Wells Texas in 1964. Swink has a deep past with it. He says he may have flown this exact one when he was at Fort Wolters.

Vietnam Helicopter

Fort Wolters was a hub for helicopter training. The training facility was called the United States Primary Helicopter School. The first class of trained pilots graduated in 1957. There were 35 students. By the time the school closed in 1973, more than 40,000 pilots had been trained at Fort Wolters. Bob Swink was one of them.

OH-23 Ravens were commonly used in training. More than 2,000 of these helicopters were manufactured for civilian and military purposes. This helicopter did so well, many different variations of it were made.

It was helicopters like these that changed the way war was fought in Vietnam. With enhanced transportation, tasks were able to get accomplished quickly. That's why many veterans refer the Vietnam War as the “Helicopter War.” According to History.com, “More than 12,000 helicopters saw action in Vietnam.”

These OH-23 Ravens that flew in Vietnam were often serving as scouts. They were also in fully operable gunship condition. Not surprisingly, many of these helicopters were shot down. This specific one Swink restored wasn't shot down, but it was an in accident.

“It was damaged in a training accident,” Swink says. “Then it was repaired and went to use in Fort Eustis, Virginia and was attached to the army unit there.”

This helicopter was sold as surplus and converted to commercial use in 1970. That's when Swink bought it. Then he got a call from his friend and businessman, Don Day. They negotiated a trade. Swink decided to covert this helicopter back to its original military configuration. To this day, every single aspect of the helicopter looks just like it did in 1967. It's also certified to fly. Swink says these helicopters still exist, but that “They're slowly disappearing.”

Of the ones that are left, Swink doesn't know if there's another one that's restored to the original 1967 gunship condition this one is in.

It cost Swink $85,000 to restore this helicopter, and he said it was worth every dime.

A Permanent Home

Swink, or his friend Don Day, will fly the helicopter down to Kissimmee, Florida in March. It will end up at the Warbird Adventures Museum. It's a museum that has many antique aircrafts that are in flying condition.

Thom Richard is the owner and chief pilot of the museum. He says for now, this is the only helicopter they'll have in the museum. He mentions that there are other helicopters like this left in the world, but he's “unfamiliar with any in the gunship configuration other than this one.”

Swink says this helicopter will continue to be used. “If anyone in the museum is so inclined to say 'I'd really like to fly in that' and they've got their checkbook with them and the numbers are right, they'll take it out and let [them] fly in it.”

The museum in Kissimmee isn't the only place that tries to preserve aviation history. There's other organizations, like the Vietnam Veteran Pilot's Association, that work to keep up places like the National Vietnam War Museum. There's also groups that focus solely on compiling Vietnam helicopter data.

Then, there's also people who, like Swink, enjoy restoring antique helicopters. And when it comes to aviation lovers who want to preserve history while having fun at the same time, there's many. It's not surprising that the following has made its way to social media. There's Facebook pages for “War Helicopters” and even specifically the Huey, one of the first helicopters to be used in war.

Flying Ahead

As for this specific helicopter, Swink just hopes people continue to enjoy it. “Hopefully many generations to come will be able to see it and enjoy it.”

Vietnam Helicopter

And Swink? He will continue to do what he loves; fixing and flying helicopters.

“I don't look for excitement as much as I do just the joy and pleasure of flying.” Swink isn't just joyful about flying, he's joyful about life. He shares that with everyone he meets. You can feel it. It's the way the helicopter eliminates fear and replaces that fear with joy.

Check out Ashley's blog post on this once in a lifetime experience here.

About the Author

Ashley Jetton

Ashley Jetton is a Coca-Cola Journey student contributor. Jetton currently works at Full Media, an Internet Marketing Company in Atlanta. She’s a recent graduate of the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism with a degree in Digital & Broadcast Journalism and minor in Health Development & Family Sciences. Previously, Ashley interned at NewsChannel 9 in Chattanooga, TN and worked as a marketing assistant for State Farm.