When he found it, it was as veiled and forgotten as Indiana Jones’ coveted prize in the last scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Thomas Meacham, a contractor at Fort Rucker and co-owner of Blast Off Inc., was hunting parts for a helicopter restoration project when he uncovered a big find.
Meacham, 66, had access to Rucker’s warehouses thanks to his company’s work stripping, painting and restoring artifacts for the U.S. Army Aviation Museum, based at Fort Rucker, 20 miles northeast of Dothan.
Tucked away in the back of the warehouse under a tarp, the helicopter had some markings that drew his attention. He wrote down some manufacturer codes and started doing research. It was confusing because the Huey had been sliced and diced over the years for upgrades and, later, spare parts.
“We couldn’t find the data plate at first because it was covered up, but once we ran the radio call sign through Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth, they came back and said it was XH40, the first Huey ever built.”
Meacham, a retired Army chopper pilot and certified Huey freak who flew two tours in Vietnam and one in Desert Storm, immediately knew it was a big deal, but he initially had trouble getting the right people to share his excitement.
His fondness for Bell Helicopter’s Huey model — officially a UH-1 — which started rolling off the assembly line in earnest in the late 1950s after the XH’s first flight in 1956, is unmistakable. “We have Hueys in service with tail numbers as low as 64, 65, and they’re still flying. She’s a workhouse, she’s paid her dues, and the Huey program trained thousands and thousands of pilots. As we progress everything gets bigger and faster but there’s a lot of people who hate to see the Huey go.”
After some trials and errors, Meacham and his Blast-Off colleagues finally got a contract to bring the mothballed XH40 back to life, for display at the Army Aviation Museum.
As a restoration project, XH40 has a number of challenges. It currently lies in three main pieces inside a warehouse at Blast Off’s Atmore headquarters, though that’s how helicopter maintenance works.
“They built these helicopters so that they could be completely broken down and taken apart for maintenance, ” Meacham says. Fixed wing planes need, as a ratio, about 15 minutes of maintenance for every hour they’re in the air, he says. Helicopters, with all their active and rambunctious parts, need four hours of maintenance for every hour in the air.
The restorers probably won’t be able to find the original engine, and they know the transmission and mast (the assembly that supports the rotor) aren’t the original parts because the XH class was soon modified to the more powerful YH version.
Do those adaptations take away from the significance of the aircraft?
“No, because when you remove the back panel, which was covering the original data plate, it says Number 1, which is all that matters. It’s still Number 1 no matter what they did to it, ” Meacham says.
“To see it right now it doesn’t look very pretty, but by August of next year she’ll be in full color and she’ll be full up. She’ll have everything she needs to fly again.”
text by dave helms