The helicopter, particularly the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, or ‘Huey’, is synonymous with the Vietnam War, having played a vital support role to combat troops in that conflict.
In the mid-1960s, helicopters were a new and largely untried addition to the RNZAF fleet. The Government decided that selected Kiwi airmen would be attached to a unit of another air force. So, from 1967, RNZAF pilots were attached to No. 9 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), initially operating the Bell UH-1B Iroquois, but replaced in early 1968 by the more capable UH-1H model.
The Australian helicopters had been in South Vietnam since 1966. Regardless of whether they were flying in assault, troop transport, resupply, or casualty evacuation (known as ‘Dust-off’) roles, the aircraft and crews were all armed. Some of the Australian UH-1H Iroquois were also modified as gunships. Known as ‘Bushrangers’, RAAF Iroquois gunships operated in a protective role for other helicopters and for troops on the ground. They were heavily armed with two forward-firing 7.62mm multi-barrelled, Gatling-style mini-guns, twin 7.62mm M-60 machine guns mounted on each side of the aircraft’s passenger compartment, and 14 externally-fitted 2.75 inch rockets.
Helicopter operations were very challenging. They included insertion and extraction of troops to and from the combat zones, and the evacuation of casualties. Both types of operations were highly dangerous and exposed the New Zealanders to the intensity and human cost of the fighting on the ground.
Although no New Zealanders were lost on active duty with No. 9 Squadron, tragedy did strike in training. On 29 January 1969, RNZAF Flight Lieutenant Bill Waterhouse was killed in a crash of an Iroquois in New South Wales, Australia, during a training flight. He was on exchange to the RAAF prior to commencing a tour of operations with No. 9 Squadron in Vietnam. Subsequently, New Zealanders went directly to Vietnam, both countries having agreed that RNZAF training was sufficient in itself.
In all, 16 RNZAF pilots served with No. 9 Squadron RAAF between 1967 and 1971. Five were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and two received Mentioned in Despatches awards. Seven New Zealand Army helicopter pilots trained by the RNZAF and serving with No. 3 Squadron also served in the Vietnam War. Most of them were attached to the Australian Army’s 161 Reconnaissance Flight flying Bell Sioux, and later Bell Kiowa, helicopters. Two were awarded DFCs.