New home for Navy guardian

The Classic Rotors rotorcraft museum, located at the Ramona Aiport in San Diego County, California, has a new addition to its collection: a retired U.S. Navy Bell HH-1N Twin Huey.

Bell HH-1N from VX-31 at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake
This Bell HH-1N previously served with VX-31 at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. It now belongs to Classic Rotors in Ramona, California. Skip Robinson Photo
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The aircraft, Bureau Number (BuNo)158256, was trailered to its new home on March 16 from Santa Barbara, where the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department had been using it as a parts aircraft since 2011.

It’s a fitting retirement home for the 47-year-old helicopter, which was delivered to the Navy from the Bell production plant in Fort Worth, Texas, on Feb. 23, 1972. At the time, UH-1Ns equipped with Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 TwinPac engines were being procured by the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force to serve as utility, search-and-rescue (SAR), special operations, and gunship helicopters.

The Navy — which was already flying single-engine versions of the Huey including the HH-1K, UH-1L, and TH-1L — desired a twin-engine version for over-water operations, so it procured UH-1Ns on the Marine Corps contract. The Marines and Navy acquired a total of 211 UH-1N and VH-1N helicopters, of which 44 were converted to the HH-1N version with an internal hoist and other specialized equipment for SAR operations.

Once accepted by the Navy, BuNo158256 went to Naval Air Station (NAS) Quonset Point, Rhode Island, where it served as a base SAR and utility aircraft until July 1973. After this, the bird went to NAS Bermuda, followed by NAS Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, again serving as a base SAR/utility aircraft.

HH-1N en route to Classic Rotors museum
The HH-1N was trailered to the Classic Rotors rotorcraft museum on March 14. Skip Robinson Photo

In 1978, it went through its first overhaul, then back to Guantanamo Bay until 1982. After a second overhaul, it served on amphibious ships including the USS Nassau, USS Inchon, and USS Saipan (on three separate occasions) from late 1983 through 1992. Then it served at Helicopter Support Squadron 16 (HC-16) until 1993, training flight crews on SAR procedures.

Then, from October 1993 all the way until its retirement, BuNo158256 flew with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 31 (VX-31) at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in the high desert of California. In its role with the “Dust Devils,” the HH-1N flew SAR support for Navy and Marines flight operations during weapons and electronic warfare equipment testing at China Lake’s R-2508 range complex.

It also responded to civilian rescue and medevac calls in the areas surrounding the base, since China Lake’s HH-1Ns are some of the only hoist-equipped and night vision-capable helicopters in this part of the Mojave Desert and Owens Valley. Undoubtedly, some people owe their lives to BuNo158256.

On Aug. 18, 2008, the aircraft was retired and flown to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. After a few years there, it was transferred to the Fresno County (California) Sheriff’s Office for a short time before being handed over to Santa Barbara County.

HH-1N instrument panel
As part of its restoration, the HH-1N will have original instruments and gauges re-installed. Skip Robinson Photo

Santa Barbara’s Air Support Unit salvaged dynamic parts from BuNo158256 to support its own UH-1N, before deciding in 2018 to make the airframe available to another agency or possibly a museum. Classic Rotors was informed of its availability and put in a successful request for it.

Now at its new home in Ramona, the HH-1N will undergo restoration before being put on static display. The aircraft will stay in its China Lake SAR color scheme; however, the paint will be sanded and touched up, and any original markings restored or replaced. The skids will be painted their original black color, while the cabin floor will be restored to its original gray. The pilot seats will be cleaned and repaired, and an original instrument panel with original gauges re-installed.

Classic Rotors has already obtained a set of Bell 212/UH-1N main rotor blades and is looking for additional parts including a 42-degree gearbox and tail rotor blades. The museum also hopes to procure PT6 TwinPac engines for BuNo158256 in the future. Timed-out parts are fine for its restoration, since the museum does not intend to restore the aircraft to flying condition.

The Huey is a true classic helicopter that every aviation museum wants to obtain. Classic Rotors was especially thrilled to find a rare ex-Navy SAR HH-1N. Because San Diego is a Navy town and home of Naval aviation, this HH-1N is certainly in the right place.

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