Lititz group restoring Vietnam helicopter for PTSD veterans

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LITITZ, Pa. -- Vietnam War veterans are able to take a trip back in time in Lancaster County.

The Liberty War Birds, a Lititz-based group of veterans which specialize in restoring Vietnam-era helicopters, are in the process of renovating a 1966 HUEY 823 helicopter.

For everyone on board, there's a new mission: restore a UH-1 helicopter, or "Huey", and return it to the skies.

Every weekend, the War Birds gather in a hangar at the Lancaster Airport. They've been working on the HUEY 823 since April 2015.

Nearly everything on board is original to when it was built, and used in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1970, according to lead crew chief Kevin Schnetzka. There's no telling when it will get back in the air, although the War Birds just received a big financial boost.

Energy group Williams, which is in charge of building the controversial Atlantic Sunrise pipeline through Lancaster County, recently awarded $42,300 in grant money to a number of area groups. The Liberty War Birds Association received a $10,000 grant, designed to go towards buying a new engine for the helicopter.

"What we do is the engine of life really," said Joe Horvath, spokesperson for Williams. "To see us be able to help them accomplish their mission, it's very important."

Working on restoring the Huey has become a labor of love for the War Birds.

Schnetzka is around the helicopter so often, he jokes his wife is starting to refer to it as his mistress.

Joking aside, the Huey 823 is a trip in a time machine for not only Schnetzka's crew, but the countless veterans who see the helicopter up close. It's not easy, he says, but for many veterans, it's a way to help them cope with their post-traumatic stress disorders.

"Probably the last time they saw this helicopter was a bad memory for them, likely being Medivac'd out of the country. They walk in this hangar door and it's instant tears," Schnetzka said. "They step inside this helicopter and they turn to all smiles. We'll come up to them and by the time they leave here and they're telling stories their families probably never heard."

To this point, the Liberty War Birds Association has only been able to take the Huey to local shows by towing it, or when people come visit the Dutch Country Helicopters hangar at the Lancaster Airport.

Along with the engine, engineers are waiting for main rotor blades. Once it passes inspection, Michael Caimi, Vice President of the War Birds, envisions taking it across the region so Vietnam veterans outside of the area can experience it.

"How great would it be to take this to the Coatesville VA center and deliver Thanksgiving dinner to the veterans there?" Caimi says is his dream.

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